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

The shape of U.S. research hangs in the balance as Congress tries to reconcile competing versions of a massive bill, 2 years in the works, aimed at boosting U.S. competitiveness with China in research and science. high-tech manufacturing.

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

Today’s story outlines proposed changes to 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 consider a provision of the Senate bill that would impose new requirements on faculty and staff to report any foreign donations.

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

The long-held 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 deadlock and see their limited provisions retained in the final bill.

Immigrants to the United States have played an outsized role in basic science and in the start-up of American high-tech companies. So making it easier to recruit and retain them should be a no-brainer, says Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D–CA), who last year introduced a separate bill to create an entrepreneurship visa.

His idea made it into the House version of the innovation bill approved earlier this year. The new visa category would apply to people who hold a significant stake in a high-tech startup in selected fields and key employees of those companies, removing them from 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 national sponsor, now required under current rules. A third change to current immigration laws would require international students to obtain a doctorate. in a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) field at a U.S. or foreign university immediately eligible for a green card, which grants them permanent resident status. This change would allow them to bypass the current numerical caps for those waiting to get that precious piece of paper.

Taken together, Lofgren says, these provisions would “make the United States more prosperous by stimulating the economy, curbing the brain drain, creating jobs for working Americans, and restoring our country’s position as the number one choice.” #1 for the next generation of entrepreneurs worldwide. ”

The House version of the innovation bill takes two other measures designed to welcome more international researchers. Currently, students applying for a temporary nonimmigrant visa must prove they plan to return home after graduation, a requirement some see as a deterrent to staying. The bill would eliminate this provision.

A second provision would create a pathway to permanent residency for a small number of international scholars — 10 per year this decade and 100 from 2031 — funded by the Department of Defense or working in areas critical 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 has won significant Republican support. That means Lofgren and his fellow Democrats need to convince enough Senate Republicans that these narrowly targeted changes to current immigration policy belong in the final bill because they’re essential to sustaining American innovation.

A hearing last week by a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration exposed these deep partisan divisions. The June 14 hearing focused on the plight of so-called Dreamers – undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States since they were children and who received a temporary stay of deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. But this program, created in 2012, faces legal challenges that could soon lead to its cancellation.

Some DACA recipients are early career scientists, like Dalia Larios, a radiation oncology resident at Harvard Medical School who came to the United States from Mexico when she was 10 years old. Larios was the first DACA recipient to enter Harvard Medical School, and she testified to how students like her are eager to stay and apply their talents to support America’s economic growth.

Republicans on the panel readily acknowledged the contributions of immigrant scientists and engineers to American innovation. But some suggested it was premature to set new rules for foreign-born scholars before deciding how to deal with other groups, such as the Dreamers.

“Between DACA and STEM entrepreneurs, what should be the priority of Congress? Sen. John Cornyn (R–TX), a leading supporter of the Senate innovation bill, asked Larios, who declined to choose.

Talk to ScienceInsider after the hearing, Cornyn said he was concerned that adding the House immigration provisions to the final product would jeopardize the entire bill.

“Immigration is not the primary goal of [the Senate innovation bill]”, Cornyn said. “And based on my experience here, I think the more he deals with immigration, the more difficult it will be to pass him.

Other Republican senators think border security should come first, and they don’t trust US universities hosting foreign-born scientists to protect national security. On the contrary, said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the new visa category and other provisions will make it easier for enemies of the United States to steal emerging technologies.

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

Sen. Alex Padilla (D–CA), who chaired last week’s hearing, urged fellow Republicans to pass the immigration provisions of the House bill. “I hope we have made it clear today that they are in the national interest, not only from an economic point of view but also from a national security point of view,” Padilla said after the hearing. . “Harnessing the best talent from around the world has given us our competitive edge, and it must continue.

But Padilla also acknowledged that Democrats are nowhere near a deal. “I think immigration reform is at the heart of the [final innovation] bill,” he said ScienceInitiated. “But I guess we still have some work to do to convince [Republicans] this side.”

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