December 1, 2012 12:09 am

House passes graduate migrant visas bill

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The US House of Representatives passed an immigration bill Friday to allow more foreigners with degrees in advanced science and technology programmes to stay in the US after graduation to help fill a shortage of highly skilled workers.

The legislation will probably face challenges in the Senate, however, and the Obama administration has voiced its opposition to part of the bill that would cut visas for other immigrants.

The bill has strong backing from Silicon Valley technology companies, who are engaged in a talent war, and from a broad coalition of US mayors and governors looking to the industry to create job growth.

“This bill will, hopefully, begin a renewed focus on the need to overhaul an immigration system formed in the age of the typewriter and modernise it,” said Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York.

The bill, the STEM Jobs Act 2012, would provide 55,000 visas for overseas graduates of US universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Unemployment for US workers with PhDs in these fields is 3.15 per cent, and for some jobs, such as nuclear engineers and computer network architects, the rate is half of 1 per cent or less, according to a report by the Information Technology Industry Council. Another study found graduates who stayed in the US and work in a STEM field create an average 2.62 jobs for US workers.

While the concept behind the Republican-backed bill has bipartisan support, many Democrats oppose it because the 55,000 visas would not be new but would be reallocated from another “diversity” immigration programme, which grants visas to people from countries with low immigration rates to the US. The bill is expected to fail in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The White House also came out against the bill but did not threaten a veto. In a statement issued on Wednesday, it called for a comprehensive, “common sense” immigration approach.

Such an approach must provide for attracting and retaining highly skilled immigrants and uniting Americans with their family members more quickly, as well as other important priorities such as establishing a pathway for undocumented individuals to earn their citizenship, holding employers accountable for breaking the law, and continuing efforts to strengthen the Nation’s robust enforcement system,” the White House said in a statement.

Technology companies are concerned that waiting for the perfect legislation would worsen the “reverse brain drain” – sending graduates back home where they can build competing technologies. Companies such as Apple, Microsoft, IBM and HP, which all support the bill, struggle to fill their engineering and design jobs. Venture capitalists would rather fund foreign-born entrepreneurs to build start-ups in the US and keep jobs and profits within the country.

Atul Sood, an Indian national and chief executive of Only Insight, a New Jersey-based sales intelligence start-up, said: “It’s terribly important that these students stay. The brain drain is hurting the US. I work with a lot of start-ups whose founders are from Brazil, India, China and elsewhere, and they want to build their companies in the US and hire Americans. They are the drivers of economic growth in this country. They should not just be allowed, but encouraged to stay.”

Additional reporting by Anjli Raval in New York

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