A bipartisan Senate immigration bill introduced on Tuesday would create two new types of visas to attract and keep immigrants skilled in the fields where the United States is weakest: science, technology, engineering, and math. The bill is designed to follow on the success of the Jobs Act in helping start-ups get capital.
Technology firms have increasingly complained that without changes to the current immigration system, they may be forced to move research and other projects offshore so they can hire the high-skilled workers they need.
The legislation, known as the Start-up Act 2.0, would create a new visa for foreign students who receive graduate degrees from U.S. schools in science, technology, engineering, or math fields. Those foreigners could eventually obtain permanent residency as long as they remain active working in the so-called STEM fields for at least five years. It would also create a new entrepreneur's visa for 75,000 skilled legal immigrants a year who start a U.S. business, employ Americans, and invest or raise capital in the United States.
The bill, a revamped version of a measure senators offered late last year, includes tax incentives to help new start-ups and would authorize research and development focused on helping universities bring research to market.
"Paired with the access to capital is access to talent," Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said at a news conference with the bill's other cosponsors, Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del.; Jerry Moran, R-Kan.; and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. "We are in a global competition for talent. And if we had the immigration policies back in '90s and '80s that we have today, I'm not sure we'd see the tremendous innovation explosion that took place in America in the 1990s."
He and others pointed to research from the Kauffman Foundation that found most of the new jobs created in the United States in recent decades were generated by companies that were less than five years old. Echoing the concerns of tech companies, President Obama has endorsed calls to make it easier for firms to keep talented foreign students in the United States after they graduate. Obama's likely GOP presidential challenger, Mitt Romney, also said he supports allowing foreigners with STEM degrees from U.S. schools to remain here.
So far, however, efforts to reform skilled immigration policies have been weighed down by the politics surrounding broad immigration reform.
The senators acknowledged the difficulty of moving any bill, particularly one connected to the hot-button issue of immigration during an election year. But its sponsors say they hope their bill can generate the same momentum that helped propel the Jobs Act, which was signed into law in April.
"We're of the opinion that now is the time, not the lame-duck session. Now is the time, not 2013," Moran said.
After the news conference, a handful of tech lobbyists approached Senate aides and asked them what they can do to help move the legislation. Michael Petricone, the Consumer Electronics Association's senior vice president, told National Journal that the legislation is something the "vast majority of senators agree" makes sense and is "low-hanging fruit."
In addition to CEA, many other tech groups and firms support the bill, including Google. "As a onetime start-up that now employs thousands of Americans and continues to hire many more each year, we are proud to support Senators Moran, Warner, Rubio, and Coons' Start-up Act," former Rep. Susan Molinari, R-N.Y., who is now Google's vice president of public policy, said in a statement. "Small businesses often use Google to grow, expand, and thrive online; and helping these businesses succeed is a key to our success."
A handful of other bills have been introduced in the Senate and House that also would make it easier for U.S. companies to keep high-skilled foreign workers in the United States. A bill that would remove per-country quotas on work visas offered by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, passed the House late last year but has stalled in the Senate.
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