World map created with passport stamps, travel conceptUSCIS announced May 4, 2015, that it has completed data entry of all fiscal year 2016 H-1B cap-subject petitions selected in its computer-generated lottery. USCIS will now begin returning all H-1B cap-subject petitions that were not selected.  USCIS received almost 233,000 H1B petitions; however, only 65,000 H-1B visas are available with an additional 20,000 for those with a U.S. Master’s degree.  

The increasing demand for highly skilled foreign labor has motivated lawmakers to call for changes in the H-1B program.  A House bill introduced on April 30, 2015  would eliminate caps on permanent residency and employment visas for immigrants who have earned doctorate diplomas in science and technology fields in the United States.   The Stopping Trained in America Ph.Ds. from Leaving the Economy (STAPLE) Act, sponsored by Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., and Mike Quigley, D-Ill., exempts foreign nationals with a U.S. Ph.D from the annual 65,000 cap on H-1B visas and authorizes those foreign nationals with a U.S. doctorate in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields to be granted permanent residence.

The legislation is particularly welcome to the tech sector.  The Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), an advocate for the technology sector’s leading companies, notes that almost all of the 30 fastest-growing occupations in the next decade will require at least some background in a STEM field, and yet the numbers of U.S. students choosing to pursue a STEM profession is not keeping pace.  According to the U.S. Department of Education only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career.   In order to keep pace with demand, U.S. tech companies look overseas to hire much needed talent, but visas for such workers are capped at levels that were set twenty five years ago.

Though critics of the H-1B visa program claim that it takes jobs away from U.S. workers, numerous studies have found that H-1B visas correspond with an increase in jobs for U.S. citizens. For example, a 2011 American Enterprise Institute study found that “an additional 100 foreign-born workers in STEM fields with advanced degrees from U.S. universities is associated with an additional 262 jobs among U.S. natives.”   And yet, as Congressman Paulsen stated, “It’s a product of our broken immigration system that we often kick out or turn away the best and brightest minds and force them to return to their home countries where they end up becoming our competitors….Thousands of jobs go unfilled because of the high demand for employees in STEM-related fields. The STAPLE Act keeps innovation and skill in the U.S. to create more jobs and a healthier economy.”

A 2012 version of the STAPLE Act was defeated by a 257-158 vote.  It goes without saying that practically any immigration reform measure introduced in today’s Congress will face opposition.  However, the STAPLE Act does have at least two things going for it:  it is concise and limited in scope – the bill is under a page in length – therefore it is easy to understand by anyone, in contrast to unwieldy comprehensive measures put forward in Congress in the past.   Second, the bill enjoys bi-partisan support:  Its principal sponsors represent both parties, and four others – two Democrats and two Republicans – have joined as co-sponsors.

If the STAPLE Act is defeated again, other measures will eventually need to be taken to address the unmet demand for highly skilled foreign workers, especially in the STEM professions.  As Mr. Paulsen affirmed, “allowing immigrants who are highly-skilled, American educated professionals to stay in the U.S. will improve our quality of life, keep our country competitive, and draw the best and brightest minds to America.”