Visa changes aimed at skilled workers

Backed as way to jolt economy

Most Americans are deeply skeptical of expanding immigration, especially in the middle of an economic slump — but a bipartisan group of senators said Tuesday that high-skilled immigrants could provide just the kind of spark the economy needs to help pull it out of a prolonged rut.

The two Republicans and two Democrats said U.S. colleges, businesses and other institutions are training high-skilled foreigners who then leave the country because of a too-restrictive immigration system, taking their economy-boosting skills elsewhere.

They proposed offering 50,000 new visas a year to students who earn advanced science, technology or engineering degrees from American universities, and called for another 75,000 visas to go to immigrants who start new businesses in the U.S. that employ at least two workers.

“As new guys, we didn’t get the memo that you’re supposed to take election years off,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrat. “Clearly, China’s not taking this year off. India’s not taking this year off.”

Mr. Warner is working on the bill with Sen. Christopher A. Coons, Delaware Democrat, and two Republicans, Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas and Marco Rubio of Florida.

Billed the Startup Act 2.0, the senators said it was the logical follow-up to a small-business bill Congress passed with bipartisan support earlier this year, and which President Obama eagerly signed into law.

The legislation includes some new tax breaks for startup companies, and calls on the administration to evaluate federal policies to see how they affect new businesses.

But the bill also seeks to get beyond the partisan gridlock that has doomed nearly every immigration bill for the past six years.

It offers two new visas: a so-called STEM visa for students who earn master’s or doctorate degrees in science, technology, engineering or math, and an entrepreneur’s visa for those willing to start businesses.

And it would tweak the quota system to make more of the 140,000 permanent “green card” visas available to workers from large countries such as India and China. The current system currently allots each country no more than 7 percent of the visas, which means that workers from heavily populated countries have to wait much longer.

The House last year passed a bill to remove those in-country caps in a 389-15 vote that signaled a potential bipartisan breakthrough.

But that legislation has stalled in the Senate, where Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, blocked it, saying it didn’t do anything to better protect Americans.

Mr. Grassley’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on his colleagues’ new bill Tuesday.

Opening the door to more legal immigration while lawmakers remain gridlocked over what to do with an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country is deeply unpopular among voters. Polls regularly show the vast majority of voters say immigration should be kept at the same level or reduced.

Mr. Moran, though, said the ideas in the new bill could win agreement by both parties in Congress, and he said tapping into overseas talent is key to reviving the U.S. economy and keeping it globally competitive.

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