Keeping Top Talent for Our Economy

This has been an important week for immigration reform efforts in Congress. Reflecting the rising recognition that our country wins when we invite the world’s best minds into the American community, two important new bills were introduced in the Senate. These bills would put into action the words that have become a growing chorus in the immigration policy debate: It makes no sense to educate top students from around the globe in our universities, only to send them – and their brainpower and U.S. training – off to compete with us from abroad.

This week, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced the Securing the Talent America Requires for the 21st Century, or “STAR” Act. This bill would reallocate 55,000 immigrant visas per year to those who have earned a master’s degree or a Ph.D. in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (the STEM fields) from a U.S. university. Also this week, we saw the bipartisan introduction of the Sustaining our Most Advanced Researchers and Technology (SMART) Jobs Act of 2012, by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) The SMART Jobs Act would take a different path toward the same goal, establishing a new and modernized visa for students coming to this country to pursue master’s or doctoral degrees in STEM fields. The visa would streamline the path to permanent residence for those students who secure a job in their field of study so that their work to fuel innovation and job growth in this country can continue for the long term.

, General Counsel and Executive Vice President, Legal & Corporate Affairs at Microsoft, testifying before the U.S. Senate.

, General Counsel and Executive Vice President, Legal & Corporate Affairs at Microsoft, testifying before the U.S. Senate.

The one-two punch of these two bills in a single week provides an important indication that our policymakers are beginning to come closer together in their thinking on crucial immigration issues. But with thinking must come action. Congress can help the country by breaking past the inaction of the last several years on America’s high-skilled immigration policy. Even such a modest and seemingly obvious step like the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act – which would help to alleviate problems in both the employment and the family-based green card backlogs by revising discriminatory “per-country” limits on green cards – has been mired in the Senate, despite passing the House in an overwhelming 389-15 vote.

By no means is immigration reform the only answer to this nation’s need for more STEM experts. As I testified last year in the Senate, the first priority in “skilling up” the American workforce is to improve the educational opportunities of Americans. But with roughly half of all master’s degrees and Ph.Ds. in STEM fields at American universities earned by foreign students, we have got to do a smarter job, now, of tapping their potential in our economy. We cannot afford to surrender to other economies the ideas and the innovations and the jobs that these talented people will generate.

And as we address this critical issue, it is important to note that this is just one of many reforms needed to fix our outmoded immigration system. Families remain separated by woeful backlogs; productive people brought here illegally by parents when they were small and without choice have no way out of the shadows; and scores of other problems persist as long as immigration reform is delayed. But this week, Senators Alexander, Coons and Cornyn returned focus to discrete steps that Congress can take immediately to address what The Economist so lamentably and accurately reminded us is America’s “policy of national self-sabotage.”

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