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Proposals would add visas for STEM workers

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Immigration attorneys say the United States’ visa and permanent residency system keeps highly skilled people out of the country and raises barriers to foreigners whose expertise is in demand.

“I try to look at the world as a sports team. You want to be able to draft and recruit the best players, and you want a system that allows you to do that,” said John Broyles, a partner in the Indianapolis immigration law group Broyles Kight & Ricafort. “I think the U.S. has lost sight of that.”

broyles-john.jpg Broyles

Two bills introduced in Congress in May could pave the way for more immigrants with advanced degrees in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – to earn visas and permanent residence, commonly referred to as green cards. The bills are:

• The Securing the Talent America Requires for the 21st Century Act (S. 3185), also known as the STAR Act. It would allocate an additional 55,000 visas for students with a master’s degree or more advanced degrees.

• The Sustaining our Most Advanced Researchers and Technology Jobs Act of 2012 (S. 3192), also known as the SMART Jobs Act. It would create a new visa classification through which foreign students who complete advanced degrees may obtain green cards when they obtain a job. Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar is among the bill’s sponsors.

Jatin Shah, an Indianapolis attorney who helps businesses attract and retain people with advanced degrees, said such bills would help not just immigrants who want to live and work in America, but American businesses as well.

“I have a lot of clients who are not able to find properly skilled people in the United States,” Shah said, noting most of those clients are in the information technology fields. He said his clients include Fortune 500 companies, but he could not disclose names due to confidentiality agreements.

“They are not able to fill the skilled jobs,” Shah said.

Philip Ripani, an immigration attorney at Bose McKinney & Evans, said the need to open immigration to people who possess in-demand skills is clear. The processing backlog for highly qualified immigrants from China, for instance, dates to 2002, he said. For those from India, the backlog dates to 2006.

Ripani has represented people from China, India, Japan, Malaysia and elsewhere who sought to immigrate to work in the actuarial, accounting, science and engineering fields, among others.

“Clearly there’s a shortage of visas of permanent residence for highly educated, highly qualified individuals,” he said.

According to the U.S. Department of State, employment-based preference visas are limited to 140,000 per year; there are about 234,000 current applicants. The agency’s latest Visa Bulletin says visas for people from China and India classified as “professions holding advanced degrees or persons of exceptional ability” are potentially unavailable.

“There’s a lot of people just waiting for permanent resident visas to become available,” Ripani said.

It can take students years to obtain a visa to study in the United States; those who complete their studies often must return to their country of origin or file for costly extensions in order to stay.

“I’ve got professionals I’ve worked with who are becoming, frankly, extremely frustrated because of these backlogs,” Broyles said. “These are folks working in very highly skilled professions.”

ripani-philip.jpg Ripani

Broyles said one of his clients created a geographic information software business in Bloomington that now employs 10 people. “He was able to extend his H-1B (employer-sponsored) visa, but that’s costing him thousands of dollars every three years to go through this process.

“These are really not the kind of people we want to be making it that hard to assimilate and immigrate into this country,” he said.

With immigration a hot-button topic and an election season looming, expectations that either piece of legislation will advance this year are low.

“These are all great ideas – the idea of facilitating greater access to these STEM grads is really important,” said Bob Sakaniwa, associate director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C. “Our view is that the entire system needs overhauling.”

Taking piecemeal approaches to immigration may work in the short term, Sakinawa said, but he expects immigration bills written to encourage a particular class of people will be amended by advocates for those who favor reform for family immigration, for instance, or visas for other categories of workers.

“So many stakeholders need to have their issues addressed in one way or another,” he said. “How in this political environment do we go about making such a comprehensive change?”

Ripani called the prospect of comprehensive reform “too daunting.”

But immigration attorneys said the STAR Act and SMART Jobs Act bills also include other provisions that make sense and could make more visas available to highly skilled people. The bills would allow unused visas allocated to specific nations to be used to reduce backlogs from nations whose requests continue to outstrip allocated visas.

In the current system, visas that are allocated to nations but unused simply go unfilled. Meantime, other nations are doing all they can to attract highly skilled and well-educated workers from around the world.

Broyles said Australia and Canada, for instance, have lowered barriers to immigrants with advanced degrees and high-level skill sets. It’s far easier for well-educated people to immigrate to those nations, he said.

“There are other countries where they can get permanent residency right away,” Broyles said.•

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