High Skill Immigration Bill Proposed

A Democratic Senator from California recently introduced a bill that would speed up the immigration of skilled professionals with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and job-creating investors in the U.S.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, whose district encompasses Silicon Valley, introduced the Immigration Driving Entrepreneurship in America (IDEA) Act of 2011 (HR 2161). The bill’s key provisions affect procedures for permanent residence and nonimmigrant processing alike.

HR 2161 would allow STEM advanced degree graduates from designated universities and who have job offers from U.S. employers to receive their green cards faster by creating an EB-1 category for these individuals. These advanced degree graduates, as well as outstanding professors and researchers already under the EB-1 category, would be exempt from numerical visa limits, making this category a fast track to a green card.

If passed, the bill would also greatly reduce the immigrant visa backlog by allowing for the recapture of unused employment- and family-based visa numbers from 1992, exempting spouses and minor children from the numerical limits, and eliminating current per country limits for employment-based cases.

Changes to the labor certification process were also proposed. Employers would be required to pay a $295 fee and the DOL must adjudicate the case in 120 days or 180 days if there is an audit.

Furthermore, the standard for retaining the alien worker would change. Under current rules an employer must consider any “minimally qualified” U.S. worker, while under HR 2161, the employer may retain the foreign national employee if there are no available “equally qualified” U.S. workers.

The bill also makes permanent the EB-5 regional center pilot program, which gives permanent residence to investors in designated regional centers. A new EB-6 visa program would also be created for entrepreneurs who establish self-sponsored or venture capital-backed start-up businesses that create jobs for U.S. workers.

A pre-certification process would be created for trusted employers that are high-volume filers in order to streamline the processing of multiple petitions with similar information.

Compared to skilled immigration bills introduced in the past, Lofgren’s proposal is aimed at allowing highly skilled foreign nationals to become permanent residents faster, instead of improving the H-1B program by raising visa caps. Focusing on job creation, Lofgren reasoned that temporary H-1B workers leave the country after their work contracts and so have little incentive to remain in the U.S. and start businesses.

If the bill is passed, H-1B employers would be required to conduct recruitment before hiring nonimmigrant workers, and H-1B employment would be limited to three years only unless the employee is applying for a green card.

HR 2161 would also collapse the existing four-level prevailing wage system into a three-level system, effectively raising the entry-level wages.

As might be expected, this bill has the support of technology companies that hire a lot of scientists, engineers and other highly skilled individuals. However, its provisions affecting the H-1B program are quite restrictive on employers and may end up defeating some of the bill’s objectives.