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House passes, Obama disses 55,000 visas for educated immigrants

IT workers 'full employment' means US needs more from abroad

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Analysis The US House of Representatives has passed a bill to provide 55,000 visas per year to non-citizens who graduate from US universities with advanced degrees in STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The legislation, however, is opposed by President Obama and has a snowball's chance in hell of being approved by the Democratic-controlled US Senate. As might have been expected, Obama's opposition to the bill has earned him brickbats from right-leaning media.

The House bill, H.R. 6429 – aka the "STEM Jobs Act of 2012" – was sponsored by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) and cosponsored by 68 other representatives, all of whom being Republicans except for Henry Cuellar (D-TX), a member of the Democratic party's fiscally-conservative Blue Dog Coalition.

Obama's opposition is primarily tactical rather than ideological. Just this week, in fact, the Obama administration launched the Entrepreneur Pathways program "to welcome and retain the next generation of foreign entrepreneurs who will start new businesses and create new jobs here in America."

The administration has also issued a statement saying that "President Obama supports Congressional action to create a 'startup visa' designed specifically for immigrant entrepreneurs, as part of his vision for a 21st century immigration system."

It's that last comment about "part of his vision" that's key to understanding Obama's objection to H.R. 6429. Much as Republican leaders are chary of passing Obama's proposed extension of the Bush tax credits for Americans making under $250,000 per year because doing so would weaken their leverage in more-comprehensive budget negotiations, Obama wants to bundle all immigration and visa matters into a comprehensive "21st century immigration system" rather than slice and dice it into bipartisan goals such as visas for highly educated immigrants and more-contentious matters such as the immigration status of what the left calls undocumented workers and what the right dubs illegal aliens.

In both matters – taxation and immigration – both sides are trying to pass segments of each question when doing so would weaken their adversaries' bargaining position.

It's called politics.

And speaking of politics, it was perhaps not coincidental that the pro-business Partnership for a New American Economy, along with the Information Technology Industry Council and the US Chamber of Commerce, issued a report on Friday entitled "Help Wanted: The Role of Foreign Workers in the Innovation Economy" that bolsters the argument for expanding immigration opportunities for foreign-born STEM workers.

"Help Wanted" argues that such workers are no threat to American jobs. "While the current national unemployment rate hovers around 8 percent," the report contends, "the unemployment rate for US citizens with PhDs in STEM is just 3.15 percent, and 3.4 percent for those with master’s degrees in STEM." Since the government defines full employment as being an unemployment rate of 4 per cent, they argue, US-citizen STEM workers are essentially fully employed, and more STEM folks are needed.

The report singles out IT positions that are currerntly begging for workers due to low unemploment rates, notably computer network architects, who have an unemployment rate the report identifies as being 0.4 per cent, and database admins, of whom a mere 1.3 per cent are unemployed.

"Help Wanted" also argues against the idea that companies hire foreign STEM workers because they can pay them less. "There is no verifiable evidence that foreign-born STEM workers adversely affect the wages of American workers by providing a less expensive source of labor," the report contends. "The average STEM worker actually makes slightly more than his or her US counterpart, earning on average $61 more per week."

This jockeying for position in the STEM-worker argument is likely to simmer on the back burner until next year when the immigration debate is expected to heat up to a full boil. The dust-up over taxation, however, is hot and heavy right now as the so-called "fiscal cliff" looms just one month away. ®

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