High-Skilled Immigration Reform a Major Pillar in Renewed Debate

High-Skilled Immigration Reform a Major Pillar in Renewed Debate

Less than a month into the new session of Congress, the effects of the 2012 elections can clearly be seen with the emergence of a campaign-style push by President Obama for comprehensive immigration reform, as well as a Senate bipartisan framework for legislation.  Long thought to be an issue that was too divisive and too partisan to achieve meaningful reform, the narrative that has emerged from last year’s election is that politicians can no longer avoid the need for comprehensive immigration reform if they hope to ever get re-elected.  The shifting demography of the U.S. that was so apparent in the voting turnout in November 2012 has led policymakers to believe that “now is the time to act.”  Central to any reform effort will be the need to change the way to U.S. attracts and retains high-skilled workers who are so essential to the semiconductor industry.

President Obama laid out his plans for comprehensive immigration reform in a speech in Las Vegas on January 29. Of particular interest to the high-tech industry are the President’s proposals to:

  1. Award green cards to immigrants who obtain advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) from American universities.
  2. Create a new visa category for highly-skilled immigrants to work in federal science and technology labs on national security programs after being in the U.S. for two years and passing background checks.
  3. Create “startup visa” for job-creating entrepreneurs and expand visa opportunities for those who invest in the U.S.

Prior to the President’s announcement, a “Gang of 8” Senators — Chuck Schumer (D-NY), John McCain (R-AZ), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Michael  Bennet (D-CO), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) — put forward a blueprint on immigration reform that is the greatest progress to have been made on the topic since the failed reform effort of 2007.  While the legislative details remain to be negotiated, it is clear that the U.S. Senate plans to deal with the issue of immigration in the first half of 2013 in a serious and bipartisan manner. 

Like the President, the Senate proposal would award a green card to anyone who graduated with an advance degree in a STEM field.  The Gang of 8 calls for immigration reform to “[Improve] our Legal Immigration System and [Attract] the World's Best and Brightest.”  The framework goes on to plead:

“The development of a rational legal immigration system is essential to ensuring America's future economic prosperity. Our failure to act is perpetuating a broken system which sadly discourages the world's best and brightest citizens from coming to the United States and remaining in our country to contribute to our economy. It makes no sense to educate the world's future innovators and entrepreneurs only to ultimately force them to leave our country at the moment they are most able to contribute to our economy.”

While there is seemingly wide-spread agreement on the issues of high-skilled immigration reform, the issue has been contentious in the past.  As recently as November 2012, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) brought a high-skilled immigration reform bill, H.R. 6429, the STEM jobs bill, to the floor of the House which would guarantee a foreign born student a green card if they graduated with a doctorate from an accredited university with a degree in a STEM field.  While the bill passed 245-139, it did so mostly along party lines, and was never taken up by the Senate.

High-skilled immigration reform is just one issue that must be discussed in the overall package of immigration reform along with much more divisive issues such as border security, pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and employment verification.  SEMI will continue to work through its public policy team in Washington, D.C. to stress the need for high-skilled immigration reform as the debate evolves in Capitol. 

If you have any questions regarding this or any other public policy issues, please contact Jamie Girard, senior director, public policy at 202-289-0440 or at jgirard@semi.org.


February 5, 2013