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Texas Sen. Cornyn proposes STAR Act to help foreign students with work visas

Ashish Singh wants the United States to use his brain.

The 22-year-old native of Nepal is majoring in computer engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He wants to get a master's degree and is open to working in this country. But to do so, Singh would need to get a temporary work visa -- a process he says isn't easy.

"America needs to acquire a system that can use innovative foreign brains, providing them a legal status and not going through the hassle of getting sponsored by a company," Singh said.

Some changes may be under way.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has proposed helping former international students with graduate degrees to live and work legally in the United States.

"The U.S. attracts the best and the brightest, but because of our cap on the number of visas, we usually send these people home. Then they turn around and compete with us by creating jobs in their native countries," Cornyn said.

His proposal, the STAR Act -- Securing the Talent America Requires for the 21st Century -- would allocate 55,000 new permanent immigrant visas for foreigners who have earned master's degrees or doctorates in science, technology, engineering or mathematics from U.S. universities and have job offers.

Intel, Motorola, Google, Microsoft, Cisco Systems, the Consumer Electronics Association, Compete America and other high-tech companies and associations have signaled strong support.

"I look at it from the perspective of, our country wins when we get the best minds," said Fred Humphries, vice president for government affairs for Microsoft. "It just doesn't make sense to educate top students from around the globe at our top universities only to send that brain power off to compete in other parts of the world."

'A clear link'

During the 2010-11 academic year, there were a record 723,277 international students, including 296,574 graduate students, according to the Institute of International Education.

There are far more educated immigrants than there are permanent residency spots available, which has been a sore point with the nation's technology industry for close to a decade.

Humphries said Microsoft, which employs 1,500 software technicians in Las Colinas, has 5,000 jobs that can't be filled because of a lack of qualified applicants. The high-tech industry overall predicts 1 million new jobs by 2013, but there are not nearly enough U.S.-born scientists, engineers or mathematicians to meet that demand. On top of that, the industry spends tens of millions of dollars a year trying to handle visa issues for existing employees.

Peter Muller, director of government relations for Intel, said in a news release that his company sees "a clear link between talented, highly skilled foreign professionals and job creation in the United States."

Major universities also hailed Cornyn's bill, including Texas A&M, Texas Tech, UT Arlington and Rice.


Cornyn's bill attempts to get around the shortcomings of H-1B visas, which let foreign nationals temporarily work in the United States. But the number of H-1B visas is capped at 85,000 a year, and the quota is often met in just a few months. Foreign nationals with an H-1B visa then wait years for permanent residency.

Providing permanent visas is the only solution among the best-educated, Cornyn said.

"We're talking about people with master's and Ph.D.s," he said. "Granting them a temporary visa is not the sort of thing all of them are going to want. They want to gain legal permanent residency."

Mustak Choudhury, president of the Bangladesh Association of North Texas, said the competition for international students with U.S. degrees is worldwide.

"I think it makes sense," Choudhury said. "Let's at least have this option."

Although both Republicans and Democrats repeatedly say the immigration system needs changes, any effort to pursue comprehensive reform gets hung up on issues of amnesty, border security and a path to citizenship, not to mention re-election campaigns for both sides.

Within days of Cornyn's bill, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Chris Coons, D-Del., filed the SMART Jobs Act -- Sustaining our Most Advanced Researchers and Technology -- which would create a visa category for students pursuing graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering or math and provide them permanent residency once they have a job offer. The bill may have bipartisan support.

Unlike the SMART Jobs Act, STAR would offset almost all the increase in immigrants by eliminating the so-called diversity visa program, in which 50,000 people a year from certain nations can gain residency status in the U.S. through a lottery.

Cornyn said the lottery needs to be dumped for a "merit-based approach" to immigration, in which the nation's economic needs are considered when granting green cards. Canada, for example, already considers applicants' education, skills and language abilities.

"What we probably need is a mixed system," Cornyn said. "It is important for family unification that we allow people in to keep families together. But this would represent a start into a merit-based system. The U.S. is not the only country vying for these people."

Vic Johnson, senior adviser for public policy for the NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said Democrats may not be so willing get on board.

"They know once your bill gets passed, you are not going to be there for them," Johnson said.

'The details matter'

Cornyn is well-aware of the potential controversy surrounding almost any idea related to immigration, and he is braced for criticism.

The bill is already getting it from another group of higher-education students -- self-coined Dreamers, who have been pushing for a path for legalization of undocumented students who grew up in the United States.

"It really doesn't make any sense for Sen. Cornyn to go look for STEM graduates from other countries when he has met STEM graduates from this country," Gresia Martinez, a supporter of the Dream Act. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

Loren Campos is one of those students.

"I have worked really hard to make sure I get good grades," said Campos, who earned a civil engineering degree from the University of Texas at Austin in May 2011. "I was very involved in STEM-related activities, and that built my passion for engineering."

Campos plans to go to graduate school in Houston and remains undocumented, though his sister has petitioned to legalize him.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., said the high-tech industry just wants more foreign nationals to "flood the market" and keep wages low.

But Krikorian doesn't oppose all of Cornyn's bill.

"If it were confined to those foreign students receiving Ph.D.s, it wouldn't be all that big of a deal," he said. "Research shows that the large majority of Ph.D. recipients in STEM fields stay here anyway. They usually end up getting a green card. If this legislation streamlines that process, I don't really have an objection to that."

Krikorian worries that Cornyn's bill would trigger a new form of immigration abuse -- the introduction of "diploma mills" targeting people who want permanent residency status.