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Is Congress responsible for a U.S. brain drain?

September 26, 2012|By Sandra Hernandez
  • Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, suggested that federal immigration officials ought to staple a visa to every high-tech diploma.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, suggested… (Gregory Bull / Associated…)

There are few issues that Republicans and Democrats agree on involving immigration, but the need for more visas for foreign students who earn advanced science and math degrees from American universities is one of them.

Both parties recognize that it’s in our national interest to try and keep the best and brightest students in this country after they have earned a master's or doctorate in math or science. The reason is simple: If the U.S. wants to remain competitive in a global economy, it must be able to attract and retain talent.

That point was made last year by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, who suggested that federal immigration officials ought to staple a visa to every high-tech diploma. And it's an issue that was raised again this month in a letter signed by more than 100 university presidents and sent to Congress and the White House, in which the school leaders noted that in 2009, nearly half of all graduate students in engineering, math, computer science and physical sciences were here on visas. And that 52% of all new doctorate degrees were earned by foreign students. Yet the vast majority of those students have no way to remain in the U.S. permanently after they earn their diplomas.

So it might seem that, unlike other immigration matters, this problem might have a solution in the works. And that's what it looked like this month when Republicans and Democrats in the House scrambled to push through two bills that would have provided up to 55,000 new visas to foreign students who earn advanced degrees in the so-called STEM fields of math and science. One of the bills, sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), would have created 55,000 visas for those students. Smith's bill, however, also required that the same number of visas be eliminated from another existing legal immigration category -- green cards awarded as part of a lottery system. The other bill, sponsored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), would have created 50,000 visas without eliminating any existing visas. In the end, Smith's bill failed to secure enough votes and Lofgren's proposal remains stalled in committee.

Frankly, it's discouraging to see both parties agree that a problem exists, identify the solution, and then walk away rather than compromise.

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