More High-Tech Visas, More STEM Education Funds

Science  26 Apr 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6131, pp. 415-416
DOI: 10.1126/science.340.6131.415

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STEM at work.

Saddleback College engineering students visit Terra Universal Inc. in program funded by visa fees.


Valentina Waters always got good grades in math and science. But college was out of the question: As one of 11 siblings, she needed to work after graduating from high school to help support her family.

More than a decade later, however, Waters is studying chemical engineering at Saddleback College in southern California and hopes to carve out a career in the pharmaceutical industry. Although born in Russia, she became a permanent U.S. resident last year. And her dream is being realized with funds from an unexpected source: fees that the U.S. government charges high-tech companies and universities that want to employ a foreign scientist or engineer. It's a pot of cash that could soon grow significantly.

Last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators unveiled a sweeping proposal to overhaul the nation's immigration policies. The bill would create new funding streams aimed at strengthening STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and training programs for U.S. students like Waters and enrich existing mechanisms. It's based on the idea that companies that hire foreign-born STEM workers should also help expand the homegrown STEM workforce. The proposal would also make it much easier for foreign-born scientists and engineers to live and work in the United States, especially if they earn an advanced STEM degree from an American university.

The existing U.S. immigration system is "just completely broken," Senator Marco Rubio (R–FL), one of the "Gang of Eight" senators behind the proposal, told reporters. The 844-page bill (S. 744) aims to fix it by, among other things, creating a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States and beefing up border security. It would also, Rubio said, "prioritize recruitment of immigrant entrepreneurs, innovators, investors, [and] skilled workers." However, the plan faces uncertain prospects in Congress.

The bill fundamentally alters how some 1 million people a year win the legal right to permanently live and work in the United States. Under current policies, nearly three-quarters receive their permits, or "green cards," as a result of family ties to people already in the country. Fewer than 15% receive green cards based on their education or skills. The proposal would move to a nearly 50-50 balance in coming decades by creating more and easier paths to entry for foreigners with technical skills.

One change would increase the proportion of so-called "employment" visas reserved for more educated applicants. They could receive 40% of the 140,000 visas issued annually, up from 28.6% now. Foreign-born students who earn a master's degree or higher in a STEM field from a U.S. institution in the preceding 5 years would automatically qualify—an approach popularly known as "stapling a green card to their diploma." That proposal is a "positive step … although nothing is ever solved in one fell swoop," says Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University in Tempe.

Building a career.

Valentina Waters gets hands-on experience during a field day at Fullerton.


Crow is one of many academic and high-tech officials who have found a lot to like in the proposal. They support a provision that would create 120,000 new "merit-based" visas to be awarded via a scoring system; 50% would be reserved for skilled workers, who can earn points for advanced degrees or starting businesses. The number of merit visas could grow to 250,000 over time. An additional 10,000 green cards would go to entrepreneurs who raise $500,000 in capital or generate $750,000 in U.S. sales and employ at least five people. And, echoing existing law, an unlimited number of visas would be available to "extraordinary" or "outstanding" researchers, such as Nobel laureates, as well as those holding doctoral degrees in any field.

The proposal also expands the number of temporary visas available to technical workers—a priority for industry. The number of H-1B visas, which last up to 6 years, would grow from 65,000 to 110,000 and could go as high as 180,000 depending on economic conditions. The legislation also adds 5000 to the 20,000 additional H-1Bs now available to foreign students who earn advanced degrees in STEM fields from U.S. colleges and universities (but not in the life sciences, where supply exceeds demand). The proposal also specifies that some of the fees paid by visa and green card applicants would be used to strengthen STEM education and training for U.S. students.

Making that link is good public policy, says Pruthikrai (Winn) Mahatanankoon, a professor of information systems at Illinois State University in Normal. He's living proof: A native of Thailand, he was able to take and remain at his academic job after earning a Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University in northern California thanks to an H-1B visa and, later, a green card. On 17 May he will become a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Mahatanankoon is already giving back to his adopted country. In 2010, he received a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to run a scholarship program for low-income students in computer science that is funded by H-1B visa fees. He didn't know the source of the funding for the so-called S-STEM program when he applied. But he was thrilled to find out. "The circle has come around," he says. "This is exactly what the United States should be doing to help create more domestic STEM workers."

Since 1998, a portion of the $1500 fee paid by H-1B visa petitioners has generated more than $1 billion for STEM education and training programs at the Department of Labor (DOL) and NSF. Those efforts, which include helping students of modest means and those from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields, have been a godsend for students like Waters, who might otherwise never have pursued a STEM career. Now, she's one of 35 students in a program called Bridge to Engineering that is funded with a DOL grant.

"If I had just gone back to school I wouldn't have gotten the chance to learn so much about opportunities in the field, take field trips and build a network," says Waters, a 28-year-old expectant mother with a husband in the military. This summer Waters will intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in nearby Pasadena courtesy of the DOL program. She also hopes to receive an NSF S-STEM scholarship that would pay for the rest of her associate degree.

Now, DOL gets 55% of the H-1B fees for worker retraining programs and other uses, while NSF receives 40%. That generates about $100 million a year for two NSF programs: S-STEM gets about $75 million, and the rest is channeled into ITEST (Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers), which supports a range of precollege STEM activities involving university researchers and local school districts.

The Gang of Eight bill would add a third NSF program supported by H-1B fees and designed to boost STEM programs at colleges and universities with large minority populations. The legislation would also create a second pot of money for STEM education, drawn from a new $500 fee for green cards. NSF would get 85% of that second pot, to be divided among the three programs.

For scientists like Amy Wendt, a plasma physicist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, those changes would mean more opportunities to grow the STEM pipeline. She and her Wisconsin colleagues received $1 million in 2010 from ITEST to develop socially relevant course units in engineering for middle school students.

"The research shows that some students may be attracted to humanitarian opportunities in engineering," says Wendt, who says that she's been disappointed that the percentage of women in electrical and computer engineering hasn't grown much since she entered the field 3 decades ago. "A girl who's not into a robotic competition might be interested in solving an environmental problem. But we as a community haven't done a very good job of highlighting the altruistic aspects of our discipline."

Exactly how much money the new fees would generate isn't clear, because of uncertainty about how many new visas would be awarded under the Senate legislation. Estimates range from $50 million to several hundred million a year.

Whatever the amount, Wendt and Mahatanankoon say they are pleased that immigration fees are being tapped to encourage more U.S. students to study science and engineering. "If our program is successful, I plan to apply again," Mahatanankoon says. "These students need all the help we can give them."


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