Tuesday's Proposed Immigration Bill Would Focus on High-Skilled Immigrants

A bipartisan group of senators plans to unveil a bill on Tuesday morning that would open the door to more highly skilled immigrants, according to a Senate GOP aide.

The announcement of the new bill, the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, will come just one day after another bipartisan group of senators announced a framework for comprehensive immigration reform and just hours before President Obama makes a major speech on the issue, a key part of his second-term agenda.

The bill — to be introduced by Sens. Christopher Coons, D-Del., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. — would nearly double the number of visas available to highly skilled foreign workers, known as H-1B visas, and adjust the number of such visas available based on economic demand. It would also implement changes to student visas and green cards.

Rubio's participation in both bipartisan groups of senators is noteworthy because as a rising conservative star and tea-party favorite, his involvement could make the attempts at reform more palatable to those on the right who desperately need to curry favor among Hispanics, a fast-growing voting bloc.

Here's how Tuesday's bill would affect four areas of the immigration system:

1. Increase visas for high-skilled workers. The plan would nearly double the number of H-1B visas for high-skilled foreign workers, raising the maximum from 65,000 visas to 115,000. Additional visas would be offered in response to market demand, judged by how quickly the cap is hit. The number of H-1B visas would ultimately be capped at 300,000, regardless of demand.

Under current law, an additional 20,000 foreign workers with advanced degrees earned in the U.S. can receive H-1B visas, regardless of whether the cap has been hit. The bipartisan bill would allow all foreign workers with such degrees to apply for an H-1B visa. Spouses of H-1B visa holders would be allowed not only to live in the U.S., as is the case under current law, but would also be able to hold jobs.

2. Allow students to apply for green cards. The bill would change current law to allow foreign students at U.S. institutions to apply for green cards while on their student visas, a concept known as "dual intent."

3. Allow Congress to roll over unused green cards and employment visas. The plan would allow Congress to roll over unused green cards from year to year, with certain types of immigrants exempt from the limit on green cards. Those include:

  • The family of immigrants who are in the U.S. on employment-based visas.
  • Immigrants who have earned advanced degrees at a U.S. institution in science, technology, engineering, or math, also known as STEM fields.
  • "Persons with extraordinary ability."
  • "Outstanding" professors and researchers.

Unused employment visas could be carried over to the next fiscal year "so future visas are not lost due to bureaucratic delays." Per-country limits for employment visas would be eliminated. And country caps on family-based visas, or visas for people seeking to join family already in the U.S., would be adjusted.

4. Promote education and retraining in STEM fields. The fees for H-1B visas and employment-based green cards would be changed under the bipartisan plan, with the money generated used to promote education and worker retraining in the sought-after STEM fields.