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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Immigration of Foreign Nationals with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Degrees

Ruth Ellen Wasem
Specialist in Immigration Policy

Although 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 112
th 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 passed a revised version of the STEM Jobs Act of 2012 (H.R. 6429) on November 30, 2012.

Date of Report: December 17, 2012
Number of Pages: 34
Order Number: R42530
Price: $29.95

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