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Republicans ready 'STEM Jobs Act'

House vote next week; Senate will likely take action in lame duck session

WASHINGTON - The U.S. House is moving closer to acting on legislation that makes green cards available to as many as 55,000 foreign nationals who have earned an advanced degree in a science, technology, engineering or math, the so-called STEM fields.

U.S. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who as head of the House Judiciary Committee is the lead lawmaker on immigration matters, is preparing to introduce legislation as early as Friday to create a STEM visa, say sources familiar with the situation.

The "STEM Jobs Act of 2012" eliminates the lottery diversity programs, which now awards 55,000 permanent residency visas to random lottery winners. This legislative proposal takes those visas and repurposes them as STEM visas.

Here are the bills main provisions, according to a copy obtained by Computerworld:

The student must receive a doctorate or master's degree from a U.S. university. It allows the students to take online courses, but they must be physically present in the U.S.

An employer petitions for the job candidate. The employer must go through a labor certification process, similar to what is now used in employment-based green cards, to show that there are not American workers qualified and available for the job.

The visa candidate must agree to work for at least five years for the petitioning employer or in a STEM field.

Foreign nationals won't be able to earn degrees at any college. The bill proposes limiting eligible schools to doctorate-granting universities with a high level of research activity. The intent is likely to keep diploma mills from capitalizing on the STEM visa program.

First preference goes to doctorate students. Any unused visas are then made available to master's degree students.

The bill also requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to post on its website, and update monthly, the STEM visa employers, the number of aliens granted STEM visa status and their occupations.

Congress is expected to recess at the end of next week in advance of the election. The STEM bill is expected to appear on the suspension calendar, requiring two thirds vote for approval, which means it will need Democratic support, say sources familiar with the negotiations.

Senate action will still be needed. If the House acts, the earliest the Senate will be able to consider the measure will be post-election during the lame duck session.

There is bipartisan support for a STEM visa bill. But action on any high-tech related immigration visa is perpetually entangled in the broader immigration reform issues. The fear among some immigration reformers is that piecemeal immigration legislation will weaken support for other issues such as the Dream Act.

Democrats and Republicans in both chambers have pitched legislation to create a STEM visa. In the House, the leading proponents are Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.).

It's not clear whether legislation will have bipartisan support.

Republican leadership could force the issue and dare the Democrats to vote against a plan that has much support from the tech and academic sectors. One lobbying group release a letter Thursday signed by the heads of 165 U.S. universities, including Stanford and MIT in support of a STEM bill.

STEM legislation proponents argue that these advanced degree graduates are in demand worldwide and the U.S. is competing for them. But there will be critics of this visa program as well, who will argue that the labor certification process, now used with employment green cards, offers little protection to U.S. workers.

The H-1B program now sets aside 20,000 visas specifically for advance degree holders at U.S. universities. This STEM legislation doesn't change that program. In total, the U.S. offers 85,000 H-1B temporary work visas, about half of which go to people in computer occupations.

Both parties, in their 2012 platforms, broadly support the idea of green cards for STEM grads. The platform positions on this issue could have been written by the same person.

Democrat platform on skills immigration: "...We will work to make it possible for foreign students earning advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to stay and help create jobs here at home."

Republican platform: "We can accelerate the process of restoring our domestic economy -- and reclaiming this country's traditional position of dominance in international trade -- by a policy of strategic immigration, granting more work visas to holders of advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math from other nations."

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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