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US House nixes bill to increase visas for foreign scientists

Posted on behalf of Helen Shen.

Lawmakers in the US House of Representatives have voted down legislation that sought to grant permanent residency —  commonly referred to as ‘green card’ status — to thousands of foreign researchers with graduate degrees in science and engineering from US universities. The measure, which required a two-thirds majority to pass, failed in a 257 to 158 vote on 20 September.

The bill is the first such initiative in recent years to be considered by the House for a full vote. Similar bills have been proposed by both Republican and Democrat lawmakers in the House and the Senate, indicating that there is growing support across the political spectrum for amending US immigration laws to admit a higher proportion of workers skilled in so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Both parties’ candidates in the ongoing US presidential race have said that they favour increasing the flow of STEM immigrants to the US. But with legislators in gridlock over how to reform immigration policy more broadly, the bill was destined to falter.

“This flawed bill is one I cannot support,” said Zoe Lofgren a California Democrat who represents the Silicon Valley region, a high tech magnet for foreign STEM workers. Lofgren is spearheading a competing bill that is not expected to reach the House floor.

Currently non-US citizens who receive graduate level degrees in the US have a number of avenues for legally remaining after they graduate. About 15% of green cards each year are awarded through employers who sponsor foreign workers. Employment-based visas are divided into categories, including one for immigrants with advanced degrees that currently suffers from long wait times.

The defeated bill, sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chief Lamar Smith of Texas, would have created 55,000 new STEM green cards by axing the diversity visa lottery — a program which currently awards those spots randomly to citizens of underrepresented countries. Lofgren’s bill sought to award the same number of STEM green cards without cutting other immigration programs. The diversity visa lottery currently accounts for about 5% of green cards awarded annually.

“Supporters of legal immigration would not have killed one immigration program to benefit another,” Lofgren said.

In a separate statement Smith said: “Unfortunately, Democrats today voted to send the best and brightest foreign graduates back home to work for our global competitors.”

High-tech industry groups and corporations including IBM and Microsoft had backed Smith’s bill, which was viewed by many as having the best chance of passing through the Republican-controlled House. Supporters said the measure would have kept more talented workers in the country instead of sending them home to build competing business ventures abroad.

Advocates at IEEE-USA — the policy arm of the New York-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers — touted the bill’s potential economic benefits and downplayed the risk of increasing job competition for American graduates. “There aren’t a finite number of STEM jobs. Technology has ability more than anything to create new jobs,” says Keith Grzelak, IEEE-USA vice president for government relations.

Domestic competition remains an apparent concern for researchers and workers in the life sciences, however. The bill would have excluded those graduates from STEM green card eligibility, ostensibly because of the “often difficult career prospects for American students graduating with PhDs in biological and biomedical fields,” according to a bill summary prepared by Smith’s staff.

Some analysts warn that if a similar bill is eventually signed into law, universities may perceive incentives to create and expand short-term masters programs to attract international students, who often pay higher tuition rates than American students. That means universities will be “effectively selling green cards instead of education,” says Ron Hira, an expert in high-skill immigration at the Rochester Institute of Technology.


  1. Report this comment

    Jill Hunter said:

    I’m at a disagreement with this decision.No reason not to allow scientests in the U.S.

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    Ravi Hasija said:

    Hi, is there any time line as to when a bill similar to this would be introduced again? Possibly after the fiscal cliff discussions?

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