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US bill to hike visas for science grads; Indian students to gain

Senator John Cornyn, the senior Republican on a panel that oversees immigration, introduced a bill that would make an additional 55,000 visas available each year for foreign graduates with Master’s and doctoral degrees who have studied at US universities.

The bill, called the “STAR Act of 2012,” would create the new visas for foreign graduates from American universities holding Masters degrees or Ph.Ds in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields by allowing them to opt for dual intent when entering the US.

Cornyn’s bill could be a windfall for Indian students who typically come to the US in large numbers to study in the STEM fields. According to the ‘Open Doors 2010-11′ report brought out by the Washington-based Institute of International Education, there are 1,04,000 Indian students in America. A high 61 percent of these students are graduate students, most in STEM fields. India and China have been sending the highest number of students to the US over the last decade.

Cornyn’s narrowly drawn initiative would add to the approximately 85,000 H-1B temporary visa slots for foreigners with high-tech training and would be aimed at graduates who have job offers in the US in fields related to their studies.

Cornyn said his bill would “bolster American competitiveness” and provide a stronger foundation for long-term economic growth and job creation in the US. “I am confident the STAR Act will provide a stronger foundation for long-term development in STEM. It would also streamline the greencard process for STEM economic growth and job creation,” added Cornyn.

This is one of several immigration-related bills that could be kicked around this year in Congress. Immigration reform is likely to be a hot potato in the upcoming presidential elections, but media reports suggest there is some bipartisan support for the narrowly focused STAR Act.

Both President Barack Obama and his Republican presidential rival Mitt Romney support policies that would expand foreign graduates in STEM fields. Romney released an economic blueprint to raise the ceiling on visas and streamline visa processes for STEM students last year, while Obama addressed the issue in this year’s State of the Union.

A Senate Democratic aide, however, told reporters that Democrats prefer to address the high-tech visa question in the larger context of immigration reform “rather than cherry-pick certain workers.” Democrats hold a majority in the Senate and political pundits say they are unlikely to allow Cornyn’s legislation to advance in its current form.

US companies have gone hoarse telling Congress that America is losing the war for talent by forcing STEM graduates with advanced degrees from American universities to leave for other competitor countries.

“We have to remember how this country was built. All of us are sons and daughters of immigrants that showed up here and made our way. We’ve cut off that flow,” Boeing Co chief executive Jim McNerney told reporters in Washington last week while noting the US now had 2 million unfilled high-tech jobs.

Vivek Wadhwa, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley who is also affiliated with Duke and Harvard universities, says that with India and China’s rapid economic growth, coupled with the backlog on permanent-residency visas for both groups, the US is on the verge of seeing a “reverse brain drain.” He made the same case before Congress by citing data from several studies he has worked on with colleagues.

“I quantified the amazing contribution that skilled immigrants make in the technology industry and raised the alarm about the reverse brain drain that is in progress. I testified, assertively, to Congress, and have been badgering our political leaders,” Wadhwa said earlier.

Wadhwa epitomises the kind of talent Cornyn wants to keep in America through his new visa legislation. Wadhwa, who was this year’s recipient of the “Outstanding American by Choice” award given by US Citizenship and Immigration Services, came to the US in 1980 to complete a Master’s degree at New York University. He stayed on in the US to build two successful software companies including Relativity Technologies. He later joined academe.

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