What’s in the Senate Immigration Bill for Scientists?

Immigration has been a big focus on Capitol Hill the past few months.  The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S. 744) passed the US Senate late last month by a vote of 68-32.  The House has yet to vote on an immigration bill or bills.  The Senate bill, as passed, has quite a few provisions in it that specifically affect both current scientists and those studying to become scientists.  Let’s break it down.

Green Card for STEM Graduates
In order to make sure that the US can retain talented, international students receiving visaadvanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the bill streamlines the process for these individuals that have found employment in the United States to acquire a green card.  The list of approved degrees that qualify is maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.  The bill also eliminates the cap on how many green cards can be issued to individuals meeting these criteria.  This provision is often referred to as “stapling a green card to the diploma.”

The bill also requires employers to pay an additional $1000 for each Green Card labor certification that would be used to improve STEM education at the K-12 and university levels.  The purpose of this provision is to make sure the US is investing in its own citizens and they can, in turn, be part of the US STEM workforce in the future.

Eliminating the Backlog for Employment-Based Green Cards
Currently, individuals seeking a green card based on employment often have to wait years, if not decades due to a limit on how many green cards can be issued in total and per country.  This bill provides temporary increases to the total number of visas and eliminates the country cap.  Currently, the 140,000 green cards that can be issued per year must not only accommodate those that are seeking the visa based on employment, but also their spouses and children.  Spouses and children account for 50% of the current annual 140,000 green cards issued based on employment.  The bill no longer counts the visas green cards of spouses and children against the total number allowed.  The bill also exempts CEOs and researchers from the cap, as well as successful entrepreneurs creating start-ups in the US.

H-1B Visas
The number of H-1B visas permitted to be issued per year will increase from the annual limit of 65, 000 to 115,000 and would  be adjusted annually (up to 180,000) based on supply and demand in the future. The number set aside for high tech workers would rise from 20,000 to 25, 000. Spouses of H-1B visas will also be permitted to work in the US, which will provide more flexibility to the visa holder (they currently cannot).  In order to protect the American workforce, the bill requires employers to pay a higher fee than than they currently do to sponsor an individual for a visa. Universities are not exempted from the fee.  The fee will go to a STEM fund that will be used to educate the next generation of STEM workers in the US.  Employers with over 15% of their skilled workers on H-1B visas also would have to pay foreign workers a comparable salary as US workers. 

There are obviously a lot of other parts of the bill, but these are the ones that specifically address science and technology workers.  The future of the Senate bill now lies in the hands of the House of Representatives, which is conflicted on how to move forward.

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