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President objects to STEM advanced degree immigration bill

updated 12:50 am EST, Fri November 30, 2012

Widely supported by tech industry; Apple, Microsoft, Xerox, others

A Republican-backed effort to increase the number of legal immigrants with science and engineering degrees in the United States appears to be on the verge of defeat, with the Obama administration's announcement that it opposes the effort. A White House statement claims that it "strongly supports" any proposal to expand the number of visas available for advance degree holders, but objects to the current effort because it cuts another immigration program rather than raising any limits.

The bill as it stands does not increase any quotas, but instead repurposes 55,000 visas away from a "diversity visa" program that admits people from countries with historically-low immigrants to the US, generally African and Eastern European countries. The program was created in the Immigration Act of 1990, and driven primarily by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) with large bi-partisan support in the Senate, but not in the House. The program has been selected for modification in proposed bills four times since 2001, with the program neither being eliminated nor expanded each time.

Long-time temporary legal residents have argued against the "diversity visa" program, claiming that it allows 55,000 people per year permanent resident status by lottery, while technology-oriented H-1B and L-1 visa recipients do not have a clear paths to becoming citizens of the US. The program has been beset by selection and technical issues, with critics calling it a gateway for terrorists to enter the country easily with fraudulent papers prevalent in many countries.

President Obama has not outright said that he would veto the bill, but the announcement is clearly intended for the Democratic majority in the Senate. The statement from the White House says that the Administration "strongly supports legislation to attract and retain foreign students who graduate with advanced STEM (Science, Technical, Engineering and Mathematics) degrees -- to establish a start-up visa for foreign-born entrepreneurs to start businesses and create jobs, and to reform the employment-based immigration system to better meet the needs of the U.S. economy." However, the statement goes on to say that the administration "does not support narrowly tailored proposals that do not meet the President's long-term objectives with respect to comprehensive immigration reform."

As expected, there are critics of both the bill and the Presidential statement regarding lack of support. A Slate editorial believes the swap from one immigration program to another is an intentionally antagonistic move to guarantee a hostile Democratic response to the bill. A Business Insider report calls the President's response "turning his back" on Silicon Valley, despite its vast margin of financial support for his re-election over Romney's campaign.

The bill is supported by a large swath of technology firms, with Adobe, AMD, Apple, Cisco, Dell, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Xerox and many others having signed a letter in favor of the bill. Firms requiring large quantities of scientists or engineers, such as the technology companies mentioned, are seen as the primary beneficiaries of the bill.

by MacNN Staff




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