Democrats lobby for high-tech immigration reforms in innovation bill before Congress | Science

The shape of US research is at stake as Congress tries to reconcile competing versions of a massive bill, 2 years in the making, aimed at bolstering US competitiveness with China in research and high-tech manufacturing.

The bills would not only authorize spending hundreds of billions of additional dollars on research, but also set out new policies on the government’s approach to supporting science. One controversial provision in the Senate version, the US Innovation and Competition Act, would change how the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s science office distribute their research dollars by geographic region.

Today’s story describes proposed changes in US immigration rules aimed at welcoming more foreign scientists and engineers. They are contained in the America COMPETES Act passed earlier this year by the US House of Representatives. Tomorrow, we will examine a provision in the Senate bill that would impose new requirements on individual faculty members and staff to report any foreign gifts.

Democrats want to use the big innovation bill now moving through Congress to make it easier for foreign-born scientists and engineers to study and work in the United States.

The long-standing maxim in Washington, DC, that any immigration bill must provide a comprehensive solution to all aspects of the thorny issue has doomed piecemeal proposals in the past. But House lawmakers hope a bipartisan desire to better compete with China will break the logjam and see their limited provisions retained in the final bill.

Immigrants to the United States have played an outsize role in fundamental science and in starting US high-tech companies. So, making it easier to attract and retain them should be a no-brainer, argues Representative Zoe Lofgren (D–CA), who introduced a separate bill last year to create an entrepreneurship visa.

Her idea was folded into the House version of the innovation bill approved earlier this year. The new visa category would apply to persons who hold a significant stake in a high-tech startup in selected fields and key employees at those companies, taking them out of the general pool of nonimmigrant visa applicants. Their spouses and children would also be eligible for visas.

In another provision, technically skilled workers could apply for the new type of visa without having a domestic sponsor, now required under current rules. A third change to the current immigration laws would make foreign students earning a Ph.D. in a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) field at a US or foreign university immediately eligible for a green card, which affords them the status of a permanent resident. That change would let them bypass the current numerical ceilings for those waiting to obtain that precious piece of paper.

Taken together, Lofgren says, those provisions “would make the United States more prosperous by stimulating the economy, curbing brain drain, creating jobs for American workers, and restoring our country’s standing as the No. 1 choice for the next generation of entrepreneurs worldwide. ”

The House version of the innovation bill takes two other steps meant to welcome more international researchers. Currently, students seeking a temporary, nonimmigrant visa must prove they plan to return home after graduation, a requirement some see as a disincentive to remain. The bill would eliminate that stipulation.

A second provision would create a path to permanent residency for a small number of international scholars—10 per year this decade, and 100 starting in 2031—funded by the Department of Defense or working in fields essential to national security.

The COMPETES Act passed the House with the support of only one Republican lawmaker. And there are no such immigration provisions in the Senate version, which won significant Republican support. That means Lofgren and her Democratic colleagues must convince enough Senate Republicans that these narrowly focused changes to current immigration policy belong in the final bill because they are essential to sustaining US innovation.

A hearing last week by a Senate judicial subcommittee on immigration made public those deep partisan divisions. The 14 June hearing focused on the plight of so-called Dreamers—undocumented immigrants living in the United States since they were children who have been given a temporary reprieve from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. But that program, created in 2012, faces legal challenges that could soon lead to its termination.

Some DACA recipients are early-career scientists, like Dalia Larios, a resident in radiation oncology at Harvard Medical School who came to the United States from Mexico at the age of 10. Larios was the first DACA recipient to enter Harvard Medical School, and she tested about how students like her are eager to remain and apply their talents to bolster US economic growth.

The panel’s Republicans readily acknowledged the contributions of immigrant scientists and engineers to US innovation. But some suggested it was premature to make new rules for foreign-born researchers before deciding how to deal with other groups, such as the Dreamers.

“Between DACA and STEM entrepreneurs, what should be Congress’s priority?” Senator John Cornyn (R–TX), a key backer of the Senate innovation bill, asked Larios, who declined to choose.

Speaking to ScienceInsider after the hearing, Cornyn said he’s worried that adding the House immigration provisions to the final product would put the entire bill in jeopardy.

“Immigration is not the primary purpose of [the Senate innovation bill],” Cornyn said. “And based on my experience here, I think that the more it deals with immigration, the harder it will be to get it passed.”

Other Republican senators believe border security must come first, and they don’t trust US universities hosting foreign-born scientists to safeguard national security. If anything, said Senator Marsha Blackburn (R–TN), the new visa category and other provisions will make it easier for enemies of the United States to pilfer emerging technologies.

Bernard Burrola, a senior officer at the 230-member Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, which backs a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients and Lofgren’s provisions, rejected Blackburn’s premise. “We take this topic incredibly seriously,” he told Blackburn when she asked whether international academic collaborations pose a threat to national security. “And we work closely with the FBI to identify, understand, and ameliorate any risks.”

Senator Alex Padilla (D–CA), who chaired last week’s hearing, urged his Republican colleagues to embrace the immigration provisions in the House bill. “I hope we made it abundantly clear today that they are in the national interest, not just from an economic standpoint but also from the standpoint of national security,” Padilla said after the hearing. “Tapping the best talent from around the world has given us our competitive edge, and that needs to continue.”

But Padilla also acknowledged that Democrats are a long way from closing a deal. “I do think immigration reform is central to the [final innovation] bill,” he told ScienceInsider. “But I guess we have more work to do to convince [Republicans] of that.”

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