Immigration reform bills start to drop

The Week

As President Obama unveils his comprehensive immigration reform bill in Las Vegas, Nevada, the real work begins in the Senate. Senators Marco Rubio and Orrin Hatch will drop the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, with an ambition of attracting and retaining highly skilled workers born elsewhere. The so-called "STEM" provision (for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is relatively uncontroversial; the House passed a similar last session. It is probably the easiest part of the immigration reform package to pass. How quickly and rancorously the bill is marked up might well determine the fate of the entire project.

The bill will offer green cards to immigrants with masters' level or higher degrees in a STEM field from an accredited university.  Some sort of incentive will be provided to colleges and universities. Immediately, the value of an American education skyrockets; not only can a computer programmer from Latvia get her education here, but now she can fairly quickly enjoy the benefits of citizenship. She won't be forced into a lottery to stay. American companies will come courting without having to pay a lot of money to sponsor her citizenship.

A problem foreseen by advocates of the bill is that the promise of a green card might attract too many foreign-born immigrants to apply to STEM programs of all qualities, crowding out United States citizens and providing what Matthew Yglesias calls an "arbitrage opportunity" for the student loan industry.  How to fix that? Neil Ruiz, a Brookings scholar whose work is widely-circulated on the Hill, says "there will be have to be some legislative language that prevents this become an incentive for diploma mills."

But at the same time, the benefits to the U.S. economy of an influx of skilled foreign workers is undeniable. If there's a glut, then maybe that's a forgivable side effect. At the same time, though, companies will probably be provided with incentives to hire U.S.-born workers that they've trained, with money coming from the payment for the visas themselves. STEM visas often create jobs for U.S.-born citizens, as AOL founder Steve Case attests.

The Rubio-Hatch bill is also significant for what it doesn't contain. There are no poison pills, like provisions to offset the number of new visas by decreasing immigration from elsewhere.  No doubt that the comprehensive bill or bills will include language about country caps, but the Senate seems genuinely interesting in passing these provisions now.  They are Republican-friendly, too, which gives the opposition party a victory off of the bat.  

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