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US lawmakers propose easing limits on foreign scientists and engineers

The United States is starting to look like a more welcoming place for foreign scientists and engineers. On 29 January, a group of US senators proposed legislation to vastly increase the number of visas for skilled workers. And earlier this week, President Barack Obama and a group of lawmakers separately floated more sweeping proposals to liberalize immigration policy.

The Senate bill, sponsored by two Democrats and two Republicans, is the most concrete of the new measures: it would add at least 50,000 spots to the 65,000 allowed each year for H-1B visas, which are used by employers to hire technically trained workers. Computer programmers and information-technology specialists accounted for about 42% of H-1B workers between 2000 and 2009, according to government estimates.

The bill includes a provision that would probably expand the number of H-1B visas even more: if the annual limit is reached within 45 days of the application period, an additional 20,000 visas would be granted.

The bill also offers some expanded opportunities for scientists and engineers to obtain permanent residency and citizenship through other employment-based visas. Unlike with H-1B visas, immigrants admitted with EB visas can eventually apply for citizenship (see Immigration: Waiting for Green). Under the proposed law, several groups would be exempted from EB caps — including people who earn US advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), as well as exceptional professors and researchers.

“This bill is a common sense approach to ensuring that those who have come here to be educated in high-tech fields have the ability to stay here,” said Senator Orrin Hatch (Republican, Utah), who co-sponsored the legislation. “It’s good for workers, good for businesses trying to grow, and good for our economy.”

Although lawmakers of both parties have generally favoured increasing the number of workers in STEM, H-1B visas in particular have attracted much controversy. H-1B holders rely on their sponsoring employers for residency and the right to work, and may not remain in the country if they are fired or decide to leave their jobs. Critics worry about the potential for US companies to underpay or mistreat H-1B workers, who may accept unfair conditions to stay in the country.

Critics also charge that many H-1Bs leave the United States once their visas expire. “If this country needs more skilled workers — and we think we do — we need to make them citizens, and you can’t make them citizens with an H-1B,” says Russell Harrison, a senior legislative representative for IEEE-USA in Washington DC, which advocates for US members of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

In the past year, similar bills have been introduced or even passed by one house of Congress without approval by the other. Progress on STEM immigration, despite its bipartisan popularity, has been stymied by disagreements in a broader immigration debate, including deciding the legal future of some 11 million undocumented immigrants.

A group of eight senators, including John McCain (Republican, Arizona) and Charles Schumer (Democrat, New York), announced a comprehensive immigration plan on 28 January, which was followed one day later by a slightly different plan announced by Obama.

As lawmakers gear up for intense negotiations, Harrison says that the Senate bill will probably serve as a sounding board for ideas that could ultimately shape STEM-related provisions in a more comprehensive immigration bill.

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