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US: 5,000 more visas for STEM graduates

A bipartisan group of the US senate has released its long awaited draft bill on overhauling the US immigration system. While the bill offers pros and cons for international students, educators will welcome a concession to increase the amount of employment-based visas for individuals holding graduate degrees in science fields.

"We amend the current 20,000 exemption for US advanced degree holders to be a 25,000 exemption"

The bill proposes to immediately raise the annual cap on H-1B high-skilled visas to 110,000 from the current 65,000 and reserve an extra 5,000 for skilled foreign graduates.

The bill proposes to immediately raise current annual cap on H-1B high-skilled visas to 110,000 from the current 65,000

“We amend the current 20,000 exemption for US advanced degree holders to be a 25,000 exemption for advanced degree graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from US Schools,” the proposal states.

Gradually the H-1B cap will rise to 180,000 annually, say the senators, however the increase comes with a caveat designed to prevent employers hiring foreign workers on lesser salaries. Companies that get 30% or more of their workforce through H-1B visa holders will be charged new fees and be required to increases wages.

The bill also restricts companies that are reliant on highly skilled foreign workers. Starting in fiscal year 2014, companies with more than 75% of their workforce made up of H-1B visa holders will be banned from bringing in any additional workers. The number will drop to 65% in 2015 and to 50% in 2016.

“We bar employers from recruiting or giving preference to H-1B or Optional Practical Training workers over American workers,” the bill states.

The increase in H-1B visa cap should please campaigners in the tech industry who have been lobbying for the ability to recruit more highly-skilled professionals. However, it stops far short of proposals by President Barack Obama to “staple” green cards to the diplomas of STEM graduates, in a bid to retain more foreign talent.

Foreign companies with branches in the US reliant on outsourcing their labour-force have also criticised the fees rise.

“It will be discriminatory and will impact our competitiveness as well as ability to service our customers,” said the president  of India-based Nasscom, Som Mittal, in the Times of India. “For me, it is a trade issue and not an immigration issue. Like we have free flow of goods either side, I think it is as important to have free flow of highly skilled people it is part of the business.”

It stops far short of proposals by President Barack Obama to “staple” green cards to the diplomas of STEM graduates

The bill also allows for undocumented immigrants deported for non-criminal reasons to apply to re-enter the US in order to complete a four-year degree and apply for residency under the DREAM act. In addition, it creates a new classification for low-skilled workers called the “W-Visa”. A 13-year pathway to citizenship for immigrants who have been living in the US illegally is also mooted.

The “Gang of Eight” senators were scheduled to unveil the bill today, but due to the terrorist attacks in Boston on Monday have postponed until Wednesday. It will be presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday and again on Monday.

Another bipartisan group of House of Representatives are expected to present their own immigration proposals soon, before both bills undergo months of debate and alterations in their respective branches of government.

“I don’t think you’re going to see too much space between what the Senate and what the House produce for comprehensive immigration reform,” said Xavier Becerra, a democrat from California and a key player in the House group of lawmakers.

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