But Charkhkar and thousands of other foreign-born graduate students in the Washington area are left wondering whether they’ll be able to stay in the country and use their skills after graduating. To do so, they must obtain one of a limited number of visas offered to highly skilled foreigners, usually those with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — known collectively as STEM.
Help may be on the way. Last week, a bipartisan Senate panel unveiled an 844-page bill that would give U.S. immigration policies their biggest makeover in a generation. Included in the massive proposal: much higher limits on the number of “high-tech visas,” officially called H-1B visas.
The legislation is likely to encounter opposition, but if it survives, up to 110,000 foreign workers, many of them graduates, could be granted temporary visas annually in the main part of the program. Over time, as many as 180,000 visas could be given out.
As of now, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can hand out no more than 65,000 H-1Bs every year. This year, applications for those visas surpassed the cap in less than a week. Once that happens, the department resorts to a lottery system to determine which applications are approved and which are denied.
In addition, an extra 20,000 H-1Bs are currently reserved for foreigners with degrees — often in STEM — from U.S. universities. The bill would lift the limit for those with advanced degrees to 25,000.
Supporters say the changes are needed to provide the nation’s employers with the type of skilled workers they need to grow their businesses and to help kick start the country’s sluggish job market.
“These are serious needs, and we have this group of students that can help alleviate some of the shortage in STEM,” said Ken Shaw, director of graduate studies for mathematics and statistics at Georgetown University.
“We really need to find a way to make it easier for them to stay here to fill some of these needs in the economy,” he added.
Business leaders have urged lawmakers to endorse the proposed changes to the high-tech visas. They cite studies that show universities are not producing enough native-born graduates in STEM fields to meet demand for positions such as computer engineers, software developers and IT specialists. A recent study by researchers at Georgetown concluded that the country will have almost 800,000 openings in STEM fields by 2018, 250,000 more than the estimated number of American STEM graduates in five years.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has gone so far as to say the nation’s immigration policies are a form of “national suicide,” in that current policies effectively turn away many foreign-born graduate STEM students.