STEM Jobs Bill Could Drown in Partisan Quagmire

Sanjay Puri comments on the STEM Jobs bill at India-West

A prominent Indian American technology entrepreneur slammed the Obama administration for its opposition to a House jobs bill that would allocate 55,000 immigrant visas to foreign students who have obtained an advanced degree in science or technology in the U.S.

The House Nov. 30 passed the STEM Jobs Act – HR 6429 – on a vote of 245-139, with Republicans overwhelmingly supporting the measure sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill would also re-open the “V” visa category, which is allocated to families of permanent U.S. residents, and shorten the wait time for V visa applications in a currently-backlogged system.

“STEM” is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.But the bill also eliminates the “Diversity Visa” program, a lottery system that allocates 50,000 visas annually to citizens of underrepresented countries. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy established the Diversity Visa program in 1986 in an effort to allocate more U.S. visas for Irish citizens. The program is currently used primarily by citizens of African nations; citizens of India, Mexico and China are not eligible to apply.

The Obama administration announced its opposition to the measure shortly after the bill passed the House.

“As a part of immigration reform, the administration strongly supports legislation to attract and retain foreign students who graduate with advanced STEM 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,” said the White House in a press statement.

“However, the administration does not support narrowly tailored proposals that do not meet the president’s long-term objectives with respect to comprehensive immigration reform,” the statement went on, calling for a bill which would, in part, establish a pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents.

Technology entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa, who has extensively written about the STEM Jobs Act, criticized Obama for his opposition to the bill. “Our priority now needs to be fixing the economy. We need job creators,” Wadhwa told India-West.

“I don’t like the idea of taking away visas from anyone, but we can worry about bringing in 100 Africans at some future point,” the Indian American entrepreneur said, responding to a question about eliminating the Diversity Visa.

The STEM Jobs Act will drown in a bipartisan sinkhole, predicted Wadhwa, who is vice president of academics and innovation at Singularity University and an adjunct professor in the school of engineering at Duke University. He compared the atmosphere surrounding the STEM Jobs Act as akin to the response on the Affordable Care Act, claiming that the latter was finally made so complex that it pleased no one.

Wadhwa predicted a similar stand-off on immigration reform, stating that the Obama administration has an “all or nothing” mindset on the issue.

“The president has made a lot of promises to the tech community and to the Indian community. Sadly, he isn’t keeping any of them,” said Wadhwa.

Sanjay Puri, chairman of the U.S. India Political Action Committee, also predicted that the Stem Jobs Act would sink into a partisan hole.

USINPAC – which has long advocated for innovation and family-based visas – is taking a “wait and see” approach to Smith’s bill, neither stating its support or opposition, according to Puri.

“America is facing an innovation and skill challenge crisis,” Puri told India-West, noting that smaller states throughout the nation have thousands of unfilled positions for math and science teachers. Community colleges are also challenged by this shortfall, he said, adding that an amended “skill innovation” bill would have a huge chance of passing through Congress.

“We would like to see comprehensive immigration reform, but there are so many issues it is loaded with,” stated Puri, advocating for a piecemeal approach which would separate issues such as border security from visa allotment issues. “This cannot be a ‘zero-sum’ game,” he said.

Any jobs-based visa bill must include provisions for families. “Let’s make sure that the spouse is not waiting 10 years in Chennai,” Puri added.

Nick Maduros, a spokesman for Immigration Voice, told India-West that his organization had not taken a stand on the STEM Jobs Act, but would continue to focus its efforts on HR 3012, also known as the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, which would eliminate the current per-country cap on employment-based visa allocations.

Priya Murthy, strategic policy advisor for South Asian Americans Leading Together, told India-West that while SAALT has always supported employment-based visa allocation, the organization was nevertheless opposed to the Smith bill. Particularly damning was the elimination of the Diversity Visa, which has been used by Nepalis and early immigrants from Bangladesh to gain residency in the U.S.

The act does not go far enough to address the backlog in family reunification, said Murthy, noting also that spouses would be allowed to enter the U.S., but not allowed to work. SAALT does support Rep. Mike Honda’s Reuniting Families Act – HR 1796 – which would re-direct thousands of unused visas from previous years to close family members of U.S. citizens and legal residents and reclassify spouses and children of legal residents as immediate family.

Comprehensive immigration reform must provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents, asserted Murthy. Such legislation must also address visa application backlogs, provide a humane and enforceable detention system and ensure due process for immigrants, she added.

“The elections were a wake-up call. Both parties must look at the changing demographics of our country,” Murthy said.

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