STEM Jobs Act is a Start on Needed Immigration Reform

Nov 29, 2012

This week various voices have been heard suggesting that the STEM Jobs Act, H.R. 6429, hurts American workers and students and should not be considered.  Some also say they don’t want to consider anything other than a comprehensive immigration reform package, and others believe even this bill is over-broad.

Based on the facts, it’s hard to imagine a bill more carefully drawn to protect U.S. workers or more narrowly crafted to a specified purpose than the STEM Jobs Act.  The legislation will be brought to the House floor for a vote tomorrow and deserves support as the bill makes improvements to our immigration system in two important ways. 

Overview Of The STEM Jobs Act

First, the STEM Jobs Act creates new green card categories for individuals who earn Masters or Doctorates in the natural sciences and engineering, and have a job offer where qualified U.S. workers are unavailable. These are individuals who have already developed familiarity with American culture, business and research practices, and entrepreneurial spirit through their training and research at America’s top universities. Instead of collecting on this investment, we send these graduates away to compete against us. This costs American jobs and puts U.S. businesses at a competitive disadvantage in the long term – instead, there should be sufficient green cards to encourage these graduates to remain here. 

Second, the legislation makes an effort to address another inequity in our immigration system by ameliorating the separation of lawful permanent residents of the U.S. (green card holders) from their immediate family.  Presently, over 322,000 spouses and minor children of these lawful permanent residents are unable to lawfully reside in the US while awaiting availability of green card numbers.  The legislation takes steps to encourage family unity by shortening the period that spouses and minor children of green card holders normally have to wait to join their green card parent or spouse in the U.S.  

H.R. 6429 is a narrow effort to address one problem with our nation’s immigration laws; yes, many others also need to be addressed but this bill is a start.  Tackling STEM green cards and family unity for the immediate family members of green card holders are both necessary parts of immigration reform, whether or not part of a broad immigration package.  We also need to begin a discussion about giving status to young people ready to contribute to our economy that were brought to this country as children but are undocumented, among other issues.  Certainly, the business community has a long list of immigration reforms needed. Let's get started on working together to revise the immigration system in our country.

What Does The STEM Jobs Act Actually Do In Detail?

To begin with, the bill is indeed narrowly drawn: 

  • The STEM Jobs Act establishes green card categories for permanent resident status for foreign students earning Masters or Doctorates in the natural sciences or engineering at America’s top schools, requires any qualifying foreign graduate student to have a job offer from a U.S. employer, and mandates that sponsoring employer to test the labor market and obtain a certification that qualified American workers are not readily available to fill the position. 
  • The STEM Jobs Act is confined in application to a small set of foreign workers.  If a U.S. employer is recruiting at U.S. schools, seeking a worker with a STEM graduate degree, about 40% of the potential pool of applicants will not be U.S. workers, since 41.9% of STEM Masters and 45.8% of the Doctorates in the natural sciences and engineering are issued to foreign students.  (Source:  U.S. Department of Education, Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System, custom user query tabulated 7/26/2012). 

Contrary to the contention that universities will be encouraged to displace American students:

  • The new green card categories under the STEM Jobs Act are limited to workers who earned Masters and Doctorates from America’s top research institutions.  These are the very entities incentivized to conduct cutting edge research and pursue scholarship in a variety of fields to maintain their status as world leaders in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.  The institutions qualified under the STEM Jobs Act issue about 70% of Masters level diplomas and about 95% of Doctorate level diplomas in the U.S. in the natural sciences and engineering (to both American and foreign students enrolled in the U.S.).

Moreover, labor market protections are firmly in place:

  • The STEM Jobs Act creates no new authority to waive the labor certification directive.  All of the new STEM green cards require a labor certification and the only exemption to testing the U.S. labor market applies in the extremely limited situation under existing law where the foreign national can show she has a record of exceptional accomplishments working in the U.S. national interest (it is not enough to have a graduate degree and a job).  The labor market certification process requires employers to demonstrate that qualified American workers are not available for the position in question, consistent with the terms, conditions and wages offered similarly situated professionals in the occupation.

The STEM Jobs Act does not undermine U.S. workers, instead:

  • The House legislation creates new obligations to ensure job openings are electronically posted and accessible nationwide so that American workers have the opportunity to know about and apply for jobs where U.S. employers are seeking U.S. STEM Masters or Doctorate degree holders. 
  • The bill also mandates creation of a public, electronically available list identifying which employers use the new STEM green cards and for which occupations, allowing American workers access to this information.
  • Moreover, the STEM Jobs Act only allocates green cards for Master’s and Doctorate level scientists and engineers, where there is a very low unemployment rate for U.S. citizens.  For example, there are approximately 309,247 U.S. citizens with Doctorates employed in STEM occupations and approximately 9,744 unemployed U.S. citizens with STEM doctorates nationwide (Source:  Current Population Survey (Bureau of Labor Statistics/Census), pooled January through December 2011 data). 

Some have argued that the STEM Jobs Act negatively impacts U.S. workers in “computer occupations,” citing the unemployment rate for these workers.  Broader statistics, though, hide the skills gap that is targeted by the STEM Jobs Act’s limited focus.  The general unemployment rate by occupation is not subdivided based on educational attainment.   The unemployment rate for computer occupations is currently at 3.5% -- much lower than the national unemployment rate, and below the 4% level that most economists agree represents full employment.  Yet, this statistic overstates the unemployment rate for individuals in computer occupations with a Master’s or Doctorate. Of the approximately 141,000 Americans currently looking for work in “computer occupations,” about 80% are individuals with a Bachelor’s Degree or less and includes individuals filling technician jobs.   (Source:  American Community Survey (Census) Distribution of Workers Above and Below the Maximum BLS Required Skill Category, 2008, as reported by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 17213, Future Skill Shortages in the U.S. Economy? July 2011).

When groups like FAIR proclaim opposition to the STEM Jobs Act, and then attack Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Jon Kyl (R-TX), and John McCain (R-AZ) for introducing the ACHIEVE Act, S. 3639, these tiredly predictable positions don’t move the debate forward.

Let’s not deter efforts to develop a conservative consensus to address a broad range of immigration issues.  It is this type of conservative consensus that can lead to, feed into, and nurture true bipartisan immigration reform.

Let’s get it started. 

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