More Green Cards for Alien STEM Grads with Advanced Degrees, Advances

By David North, October 6, 2011

Thanks in part to two strong performances by two strong women, the cause of more green cards for foreign students with advanced U.S. high-tech degrees seemed to advance at a House of Representatives hearing yesterday.

The pro-migration tone of the hearing of the House Subcommittee on Immigration had been set by the catchy title of the event: “STEM the Tide: Should America Try to Prevent an Exodus of Foreign Graduates of U.S. Universities with Advanced Science Degrees?”

A list of the witnesses and copies of their statements is available.

That, in fact, there is a flood tide of incoming foreign graduate students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and only a trickle of departures, as I have shown in a CIS Backgrounder on the subject, did not seem to make much of a difference.

The two knowledgeable and articulate women were the ranking member (and former chair) of the Subcommittee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D - CA), or more precisely (D - Silicon Valley), a former immigration lawyer; and Darla Whitaker, a Senior Vice President of Texas Instruments, the lead-off witness. Ms. Whitaker spoke on behalf of the Semiconductor Industry Association.

What they both advocated was not an expansion of the ceiling of H-1B admissions, the industry’s pitch in prior years, but more green cards for those foreigners who had secured advanced STEM degrees in the U.S. This was needed, Ms. Whitaker said, to prevent the off-shoring of high-tech business to nations that had more permissive immigration policies.

When question time came most of the members present were Republican males, and they seemed to address most of their questions, soft ones at that, to the attractive woman representing big business, which, I suppose was predictable.

The other three witnesses, all males, made solid presentations but drew less attention.

The other pro-industry witness was someone I had not seen before, but he played a very familiar role. Vivek Wadhwa is a highly-successful immigrant from India, a former entrepreneur now an academic with ties to Duke, Harvard, and Berkeley. He, too, was a skilled witness. (His written testimony also identified him as a columnist with the Washington Post; I have read that paper every morning for the last fifty years and must have missed his contributions.)

Professor B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University had a series of sensible things to say about the looseness of the STEM labor markets, how Americans had STEM skills but often worked outside the field where wages were higher, and how the stability of STEM wages indicated that there were no STEM labor shortages. He said it was a given that the flow of workers from overseas would continue and that no additions were needed.

He is a regular, and from my point of view, welcome, witness at such hearings.

I must commend the staff of the Subcommittee for introducing a new face, and a new point of view, to this ongoing conversation. That was in the person of the fourth witness, Barmak Nassirian, the Associate Executive Director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO).

His concern, as noted in his opening statement, was that the proposed “preferential immigration treatment of advanced STEM graduates” posed a series of problems including “the unintended ways in which individuals may seek to manipulate the new policy to their advantage, the threat posed by unscrupulous providers of credentials and the manner in which even legitimate institutions may be induced to take advantage of the new immigration incentives.”

The basic concept of the proposed legislation is to give automatic green cards to aliens completing high-tech advanced degrees, as proposed in a sweeping bill backed by Rep. Lofgren that I discussed at some length in the previously cited CIS Backgrounder.

Were there to be such legislation, Nassirian made several suggestions:

  1. The STEM disciplines should be defined precisely.
  2. “. . . institutional eligibility should be carefully defined to prevent diploma mills and unscrupulous schools from cashing in on the new benefits.”
  3. “Eligibility should be restricted to established non-profit institutions.”
  4. “Eligible institutions should have significant federal research funding.”
  5. They should be “barred from hiring commissioned agents for recruitment of foreign students.”
  6. They should be “barred from charging a significantly higher rate to their foreign students than the highest rate for their U.S. counterparts.”

Thinking of Nassirian's proposals I was reminded of the sage comment “if someone gives you advice contrary to his narrow economic interests, it is probably good advice. Think of the dentist who says ‘that’s not a cavity’ for instance.”

In Nassirian's case, his association includes both non-profit and for-profit entities, and if he advises against the inclusion of for-profit institutions in a federal program, he is arguing against the financial interests of some of his own members. Impressive.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R - TX), chair of the parent Judiciary Committee, spent his five minutes with the microphone trying, and largely getting, the four witnesses to agree on some limitations to such a bill. He got the witnesses to agree that such a bill would be better were it to be limited to specific STEM categories, to the more established universities, and to graduates with U.S. job offers.

When he also suggested that it be limited to graduates with certain grade levels Nassirian objected saying that this might prove to be counter-productive and lead some institutions to tilt their scoring systems in favor of higher grades.

Much of the industry’s comments related to the backlog of green cards caused by the country-of-origin limitations of the INA, and the alleged inability of H-1B card holders to set up their own companies. Though I may have missed it, I heard no testimony to the effect that H1-B visas can be extended year after year, and that foreign-born PhDs tend, according to federal studies, to stay in the U.S., and not to leave it.

Rep. Lofgren closed the proceedings by saying cheerfully that much of what had been discussed at the hearing was already in her bill. She did not comment on the general direction of Rep. Smith's efforts to narrow it considerably, beyond agreeing that only the better universities should be among those qualifying for it.

If Chairman Smith and Rep. Lofgren were to agree on the text of a bill to expand the supply of green cards to those with new advanced STEM degrees it would be highly likely to pass through the committee, and perhaps become law.

Subcommittee chairman Elton Gallegly (R-CA) presided in his usual polite, passive way.