News of the Week

Senate Bill Would Boost High-Tech Workforce

Science  02 Jun 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5778, pp. 1295b
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5778.1295b

Business leaders and U.S. academic institutions are applauding some of the provisions in the immigration reform bill approved last week by the Senate. And although the overall measure is at odds with a version passed last fall by the House of Representatives, which focuses more on reducing rather than regulating immigration, scientists don't expect those provisions to be bargaining chips as the two bodies try to reach a compromise.

The Senate bill retains several provisions from last month's abortive agreement (Science, 14 April, p. 177), including hiring more high-tech foreign workers and granting permanent residency to foreign students graduating with advanced degrees in science and engineering from U.S. universities. It also would modify a program that annually awards 50,000 visas by lottery to applicants from low-immigration countries—poor nations such as Bangladesh and Angola as well as wealthier ones such as Australia and Germany. Current rules allow applications from anyone who has finished high school and worked for 2 years. The amendment would reserve two-thirds of these visas for applicants with advanced science and engineering degrees. “Rather than have a lottery system which says to the unemployed cab driver in Kiev, ‘You should have a chance to come to America,’ we are going to have a lottery system that says to the physicist in Kiev, ‘You have a shot at coming to America,'” explained Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) as he offered the amendment.

Sandra Boyd of the National Association of Manufacturers welcomes the change, although she says the immediate benefits may be slight. “The countries that qualify for the diversity visa program are not the ones where U.S. companies go looking for talent in the first place,” she explains. The amendment even makes sense to Jack Martin of the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which opposes opening U.S. borders. “Having a higher degree requirement for the lottery would certainly be in keeping with the needs of the economy,” he says.

Higher education lobbyists are heartened by the Senate's support of a proposal to grant automatic permanent residency, or “green cards,” to foreign students graduating from U.S. institutions with master's degrees and Ph.D.s in science and engineering fields. The legislators also raised the H-1B visa cap from the existing 65,000 to 115,000 a year, with an automatic 20% boost each year if the ceiling is reached, and increased the annual employment-based green card ceiling from 140,000 to 290,000.

None of these measures is expected to figure prominently in upcoming discussions between the House and Senate, however, although the House version of the bill would eliminate the diversity program. “The principal issues of contention will be the amnesty and guest worker provisions,” says Martin. President George W. Bush has supported immigration reform but must walk a fine line to avoid alienating conservatives who prefer the House version.

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