Last month, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), the senior Republican on the Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security Subcommittee, introduced a proposal called the “Securing the Talent America Requires for the 21st Century Act”, or the STAR Act. The legislation was designed to allocate 55,000 visas a year for students who earn master’s or doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (more commonly referred to as “STEM” graduates). The emphasis on granting such graduates the opportunity to remain in the United States is understandable as foreign students make up approximately half, if not more, of the recipients of master’s and Ph.D’s in STEM-related fields. Indeed, according to the National Science Foundation, foreign students earned 57% of all engineering doctorates, 54% of all computer science degrees, and 51% of physics doctoral degrees in 2009.
Proponents of the bill suggest that the lack of a solid immigration policy is causing the nation to lose many of the world’s best minds—entrepreneurs and job creators—to competitors abroad. Currently, many foreign technology graduates work in the U.S. on a temporary basis with the assistance of the H-1B program. But because H-1B visas are only valid for an aggregate of six years (unless certain other conditions are met, i.e. the employer has timely started green card process for the employee), many foreign graduates are forced to return to their native countries.
For nearly a decade, both technology companies and immigration advocates have demanded an easier solution for workers with advanced degrees to remain in the country, contending that there are not enough domestic technology workers to meet their needs. The STAR Act suggests one solution to the shortcomings of the H-1B visa and securing foreign STEM graduates in the United States. That is, the STAR Act aims to replace 55,000 diversity visas currently available to individuals from countries with low rates of immigration with 55,000 STEM graduates. Simply put, Cornyn’s bill is based on his belief that the green card lottery (otherwise known as the Diversity Lottery) “needs to be dumped for a ‘merit based approach’ to immigration in which the nations’ economic needs are considered when granting green cards.”
Senator Cornyn’s bill has garnered significant support from universities and high-tech companies all over the country. However, as of yet, it is unclear whether conservative Republicans will support the bill, though it is likely that the Democrats who currently make up the Senate majority will oppose the legislation.
Criticism surrounding the STAR Act comes from a variety of interest groups. Some critics are concerned that such a program would harm U.S. technology workers by increasing job competition, displacing the unemployed U.S. technology workers, and promoting age discrimination. Others, meanwhile, are more concerned with the elimination of diversity visas under the STAR Act, suggesting that the value of ethnic diversity should not be undermined because diversity strengthens the country in different ways. More criticism comes from yet another angle as “Dreamers” disparage the act for ignoring the group of undocumented students who have grown up in the U.S. and could themselves constitute STEM graduates within the country. And still, there are others who are concerned that the bill would mark the beginning of a new form of immigration abuse – the creation of “diploma mills” aimed at foreign nationals who want permanent residency status.
Senator Cornyn’s proposal comes amidst a wave of bipartisan efforts to increase the number of permanent visas available for STEM graduates, signaling a nationwide concern for American global competitiveness in these fields. Both Republicans and Democrats have introduced a number of bills in the month of May alone. Notably, U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) introduced Startup Act 2.0 that seeks to allow green card availability for advanced degree STEM graduates. Senator Coons also co-sponsored a green card STEM bill with Senator Lamar Alexandar (R-Tenn.). In the House, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Cal) introduced a Democrat-only green card bill and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) introduced a Republican version of the same bill.
The flurry of legislative activity more than suggests a growing belief that the U.S. needs to make it easier for a foreign student with an advanced STEM degree to remain in this country, though the bills differ as to how they aim to facilitate the process. Proponents of such bills, including President Obama, state that such action is necessary in order to maintain American leadership in the technological field. In this atmosphere, it is likely that more bills are going to arise, though it is unlikely that any such bill will be approved this year (at least before the election). Although both Republicans and Democrats have demonstrated a belief in a need for change in the immigration policy, pursuit of reform is often tied to other more contentious issues such as amnesty, border security, and a path to citizenship and, of course, re-election campaigns for both sides.