As legislators in Washington battle over foreign policy and the federal budget, the most significant policy struggle of the spring and summer still looms in the background: what to do about comprehensive immigration reform.
Perhaps the most widely known and controversial aspect of the immigration reform bill is the provision that would normalize the immigration status of up to thirteen million undocumented immigrants currently living in the US. But the bill also has important implications for the US science and tech communities, as key provisions of the new law would greatly expand the possibilities for STEM workers and entrepreneurs to live, work and start new businesses in the US.
With an estimated one million high-skilled workers living in the US on temporary visas and waiting for green cards, Congress has finally taken up the question of how to keep these workers here, and how to bring more high-skilled workers to the US so they can make additional contributions to the US economy. Between 1995 and 2005, more than 25% of major high-tech firms in the US had at least one immigrant founder. In the following six years, over one third of the US venture-backed companies that went public had at least one immigrant founder. Immigrant founded startups have proven to be a major engine for job creation despite the sluggish economy, and legislators are hoping that easing the process for high-skilled STEM workers and entrepreneurs to come to the US will help goose the economy over both the short and long terms. The House has yet to vote on a comprehensive proposal for immigration reform, but the measure that passed the Senate in June includes some important developments that will directly affect US science and the US tech and biotech sectors if ultimately enacted into law.
H1B Limits Increased
The most important reforms for STEM workers would be the change in laws affecting H1B visas, which are temporary visas issued to specialized workers employed by US companies. Under the Senate bill, the annual limit on H1B visas would nearly double from its current cap of 65,000 to a cap of 110,000 when the bill goes into effect. Current law allows for the issuance of an additional 20,000 H1B visas to individuals who hold advanced degrees in STEM fields from US universities, but the reform bill would add 5,000 more H1B visas to this allowance, for a total allowance of 25,000 H1B visas for qualifying US STEM graduates. In years where there is extremely high demand for H1B workers, the Senate bill would allow for the total H1B cap to be raised to 185,000 visas per year. In response to concerns raised about abuse of the H1B program, the Senate bill also contains provisions that would increase regulatory scrutiny for US companies whose workforces are comprised of more than 15% H1B employees. The new protections are intended to prevent employers from bringing foreign workers to the US on H1B visas for training only to send them back abroad to do their jobs outside the US.
Temporary Startup Visa Introduced
One of the chief complaints raised by the tech and entrepreneur communities regarding US immigration laws in recent years has been the level of difficulty that the current system imposes on foreign individuals who wish to launch startups in the US. The Senate bill would ease that process by providing for a new startup visa for foreign entrepreneurs who obtain venture capital funding from US investors. The temporary startup visa would allow entrepreneurs to stay in the US for a renewable period of three years upon demonstrating that they have raised at least $250,000 in venture capital or generate more than $200,000 in yearly revenue. The Senate bill also introduced a corresponding startup green card, which would grant permanent resident status to individuals whose companies have raised at least $500,000 in venture capital or generated at least $500,000 in annual revenue. For entrepreneurs who are not trained in STEM fields, the minimum annual revenue or venture capital investment threshold is $750,000 to obtain the startup green card. The new startup visa requirements also include job creation components for petitioning startup ventures.
No More Cap on Green Cards for Extraordinary Researchers
Current law caps the number of EB1 green cards available to individuals who possess extraordinary ability at a limit of 40,000 per year, but the Senate bill would eliminate the cap entirely. This reform is significant because EB1 green cards are the fastest route to permanent resident status for research fellows and professors residing in the US. It should be noted that the current annual cap for EB1 green cards for individuals of extraordinary ability is seldom if ever met. However, the Senates decision to lift the cap does signify an increasing willingness to broaden immigration pathways for individuals with demonstrable outstanding ability.
Merit Visa Replaces Diversity Visa
Current law allows for the issuance of 55,000 “diversity” green cards to promote immigration to the US from countries with historically low rates of immigration. But the Senate bill completely eliminates the diversity visa lottery and replaces it with a new merit visa program. The bill provides for an annual quota of 250,000 merit visas, which would be awarded based on a point system pertaining to applicants’ age, education, work history, entrepreneurship, personal ties to the US, civic involvement, and work abilities in fields deemed critical to US interests. There is little doubt that individuals with training in STEM fields will benefit tremendously from the move away from diversity and towards a more merit-based immigration system.
It remains to be seen whether the Senate bill will be taken up by the House, where the leadership have pledged to introduce and consider their own bill. But measures previously introduced in the House include some promising developments of their own. Comprehensive immigration reform remains a highly fraught political issue in Washington but if the measure is passed into law, its impact will be felt by the US economy and by the tech and biotech sectors for years to come.