Main image of article House Kills Bill to Create More STEM Visas
Washington DCThe House of Representatives has defeated a bill that would have allowed as many as 55,000 foreign nationals with STEM degrees -- those in science, technology, engineering or math -- to receive green cards. The brainchild of Texas Republican Lamar Smith, The "STEM Jobs Act" would have changed lottery-based permanent-residency visas into STEM visas. The proposed legislation actually won a majority of votes (257-158), but because Republicans brought it to the floor under a suspension of the rules, it required a two-thirds majority to pass. The granting of visas to foreign STEM graduates tends to have bipartisan support, and both parties have some form of language backing the idea in their official platforms. At the same time, leaders from 165 universities had signed a letter in support.

Let the Debate Begin

The contentiousness behind the issue of STEM visas is an offshoot of the long-simmering debate over H-1Bs. The thinking goes something like this: The U.S. needs to be globally competitive in the sciences, but can’t inspire enough students to study in those fields. In fact, he United States ranks 27th among developed countries in the proportion of bachelor’s degrees awarded in science or engineering, according to a 2010 National Academies report. Meanwhile, thousands of foreign students come here to get degrees degrees in the sciences. They're allowed to stay for up to 29 months after they graduate. Then they have to leave, unless they score an H-1B, which a company can request if it claims it can’t find an American to do the job. Proponents argue we should let them stay, become American residents, and make the country more competitive. Critics say companies use H-1Bs as a way to pay lower wages.

The Push for More STEM Workers

The President and industry groups have long called on colleges to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year and 100,000 new teachers with majors in STEM, but the pipeline hasn't been filled the pipeline just yet. There are about 250,000 American STEM undergrads right now, but most won't go on to get advanced degrees. So, does the U.S. need to offer residency to 55,000 foreign STEM workers in order to remain competitive? As you consider that, bear in mind that in 2009, about 33 percent of the total 450,000 STEM graduate here had temporary visas. That's about 150,000, alongside 300,000 Americans.

Visa Requirements

How would those 55,000 people get their green cards under the proposal?
  • First, receive a doctorate or master's degree from a U.S. university while physically present in the U.S.
  • Be backed by an employer, who would petition for the candidate through a labor certification process similar to what's used for employment-based green cards. They'd have to show that there are not American workers qualified and available for the job.
  • Agree to work for the petitioning employer or in a STEM field for at least five years.
First preference would have gone to doctoral students. Any unused visas would be made available to master's  degree students. Also,the bill proposed limiting eligible schools to doctorate-granting universities with a high level of research activity. That’s so diploma mills wouldn't try to get in on the action. The arguments between those who say America needs foreign STEM workers now, and those who want Americans to get the best STEM jobs, is sure to continue. At the moment, though, momentum is on the side of those pushing for competitiveness. Where do you stand? Tell us what you think in the comments below. Updated Sept. 24 to report bill's defeat.