Since the 2012 election, several issues that Congress had been reluctant to spend time deliberating have come into the political limelight. Most of these issues (entitlement reform, tax reform, gun control) have no real bearing on the scientific community. However, the recent bipartisan support for reforming the nation’s immigration system may have long-term effects on laboratories across the country as politicians discuss how America can be a magnet for the world’s top scientists, mathematicians and engineers.
Immigration reform is an issue with which many of you are familiar already. I have heard countless anecdotes about the trials of studying in the U.S. on temporary student visas. For example, some students are prevented from attending international conferences even after being invited to present their work due to the restrictive nature of student visas. Meanwhile, we see America as a clear leader in education, with students flocking to American universities by the thousands – only to return to their countries to conduct research or start businesses that directly compete with American ones.
Last month, President Obama gave a broad speech on immigration to an audience in Las Vegas. The president connected studying for degrees in science and technology fields with American jobs. “If you’re a foreign student who wants to pursue a career in science or technology or a foreign entrepreneur who wants to start a business with the backing of American investors, we should help you do that here,” said Obama. “Because, if you succeed, you’ll create American businesses and American jobs. You’ll help us grow our economy.”
Days before the president’s speech, U.S. Senate leaders like Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., made similar statements about the need to overhaul the American immigration system. Then, in late January, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Immigration Innovation, or I-Squared, Act of 2013. This act would increase the number of work visas available for people in science, technology, engineering and math fields and for students graduating with advanced STEM degrees. Additionally, a portion of the fees collected from work visa applications would fund federal STEM education programs. The changes to the visa system and fee structure would allow us to fill many of the vacant high-tech positions around the nation, thereby boosting productivity and economic growth while paying for improvements to the American STEM education system. As John Doerr of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers said in a statement to TechNet, “The positive impact that immigrant entrepreneurs and engineers have had on our economy is profound. They establish one-quarter of U.S. technology startup companies and the jobs that come with this growth. They are critical for U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.”
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American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology President Jeremy Berg agreed, saying, “Efforts to reform immigration like the Immigration Innovation Act are essential to keeping America a global leader for innovation, which benefits the U.S. through ensuring a strong, healthy economy and a strong, healthy populace.” The ASBMB supports the I-Squared Act, which mirrors many of the president’s proposed immigration changes. Giving the best and brightest in every field the opportunity to stay and work in the U.S. as opposed to returning to their home countries to compete against us is essential for thriving in a global economy.
Benjamin Corb (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of public affairs at the ASBMB.