September 19, 2012

NOT MANY PARTS of the Democratic and Republican party platforms are interchangeable. An exception is the nearly identical passages expressing support for keeping foreign-born students in this country after they earn advanced degrees from U.S. universities in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM fields. The rationale is obvious. It is folly to educate these prized students in the United States — often with federal subsidies — and then, lacking adequate visas for them, force them into the hands of corporate competitors overseas.

Unfortunately, it’s easier to recognize folly than to do something about it, especially for the current Congress, and particularly in the context of the contentious immigration debate. Yet if any immigration problem can be resolved, this one should be.

A pair of bills — one Republican, one Democratic — propose solutions, but by different means. The Republican measure, sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, would create 55,000 STEM green cards annually by repurposing a similar number now devoted to the so-called green-card lottery. The Democratic bill, authored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, would create 50,000 STEM visas by expanding overall immigration, without eliminating the lottery.

Congressional leaders have gone back and forth on the issue for months, seeking compromise. So far, no agreement is in the cards. Republicans, under the influence of anti-immigrant restrictionists, are loath to increase the number of immigrants. Some Democrats are reluctant to ditch the green-card lottery, also known as the diversity visa program, which benefits mainly African and Eastern European immigrants. Others worry that a separate deal on STEM graduates now may make it more difficult to nail down a comprehensive immigration reform package later.

There’s some logic in the Republican approach. Over its two decades, the green-card lottery has been a great diplomatic public relations tool for the United States. But in the current economic climate, STEM graduates are more valuable than mostly low-skilled workers from the Third World.

What’s clear is that, without a deal, this country is the loser. Globally, demand for STEM graduates is soaring and competition is stiff. Canada, Britain and Australia have all structured their immigration rules to favor their job markets. China is offering cash and other incentives to lure Chinese scientists home after they have trained overseas. Meanwhile, the U.S. system remains tilted in favor of foreign relatives of citizens and permanent residents.

There’s no mystery about the entrepreneurial energy and talent that foreign STEM graduates have to offer. Increasingly, they dominate engineering and other scientific departments at top universities around the country. In the decade ending in 2005, the founders of half the firms in Silicon Valley were born overseas. Allowing them to slip through the cracks of this nation’s broken immigration system, and into the arms of rivals in other countries, is a recipe for long-term economic decline.