the United States remains the leading host country for international students
in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields, the
global competition for talent has intensified. A record number of STEM
graduates—both U.S. residents and foreign nationals—are entering the U.S.
labor market, and there is a renewed focus on creating additional immigration pathways
for foreign professional workers in STEM fields. Current law sets an annual
worldwide level of 140,000 employment-based admissions, which includes the
spouses and children in addition to the principal (i.e., qualifying)
aliens. “STEM visa” is shorthand for an expedited immigration avenue that
enables foreign nationals with graduate degrees in STEM fields to adjust to
legal permanent resident (LPR) status without waiting in the queue of
numerically limited LPR visas. The fundamental policy question is should
the United States create additional pathways for STEM graduates to remain
in the United States permanently?
The number of full-time graduate students in science, engineering, and health
fields who were foreign students (largely on F-1 nonimmigrant visas) grew
from 91,150 in 1990 to 148,923 in 2009, with most of the increase
occurring after 1999. Despite the rise in foreign student enrollment, the
percentage of STEM graduate students with temporary visas in 2009 (32.7%) was comparable
to 1990 (31.1%). Graduate enrollments in engineering fields have exhibited the
most growth of the STEM fields in recent years. About 40,000 graduate
degrees were awarded to foreign STEM students in 2009, with 10,000 of
those going to Ph.D. recipients.
After completing their studies, foreign students on F-1 visas are permitted to
participate in employment known as Optional Practical Training (OPT),
which is temporary employment that is directly related to an F-1 student’s
major area of study. Generally, a foreign student may work up to 12 months
in OPT status. In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) expanded the OPT
work period to 29 months for F-1 students in STEM fields.
Many F-1 visa holders (especially those who are engaged in OPT) often change
their immigration status to become professional specialty workers (H-1B).
Most H-1B beneficiaries are typically admitted to work in STEM
occupations. In FY2010, the most recent year for which detailed data on
H-1B beneficiaries (i.e., workers renewing their visas as well as newly
arriving workers) are available, almost 91,000 H-1B workers were employed
in computer-related occupations, and they made up 47% of all H-1B
beneficiaries that year.
The H-1B visa and the OPT often provide the link for foreign students to become
employmentbased LPRs. In total, foreign nationals reporting STEM
occupations made up 44% of all of the 676,642 LPRs who were
employment-based principal immigrants during the decade of FY2000- FY2009.
Of all of the LPRs reporting STEM occupations (297,668) over this decade, 52% entered
as professional and skilled workers. STEM graduates seeking LPR status are
likely to wait in line to obtain LPR status. Those immigrating as
professional and skilled workers face wait times of many years, but those
who meet the criteria of the extraordinary ability or advanced degrees
preference categories have a much shorter wait.
STEM visas have gained interest in the 112th Congress,
and various bills with STEM visa provisions (H.R. 399, H.R. 2161, H.R.
3146, H.R. 5893, H.R. 6412, S. 1965, S. 1986, S. 3185, S. 3192, and S.
3217) have been introduced. The House Committee on the Judiciary held two hearings
on STEM and other high-skilled immigration in 2011. These issues also arose
during a 2011 Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearing on the economic
rationale for immigration reform. On September 20, 2012, the STEM Jobs Act
of 2012 (H.R. 6429) failed to receive the necessary two-thirds vote to
pass under suspension of the rules. Most recently, the House Rules Committee
has posted a revised version of the STEM Jobs Act of 2012 (H.R. 6429) on its website,
indicating that it may come to the floor the week of November 26, 2012.
Date of Report: November 26, 2012
Number of Pages: 34 Order Number: R42530 Price: $29.95
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