Immigration changes loom for Triangle, nation

High-tech students, employers would be beneficiaries

jmurawski@newsobserver.comNovember 29, 2012 

Triangle residents Arpit Gupta and Ranjith Kumar could live or die professionally by the outcome of a vote in Congress today.

Gupta is working on his Ph.D. from N.C. State University and Kumar got his doctorate in May. Both scientists say they need to work in this country for at least a few years to attain major league status in their fields. Eventually, they plan to return to India to reap the benefits of their American educations.

A House vote scheduled Friday in Washington could help Gupta and Kumar achieve their aspirations, while boosting the infusion of foreign talent into technology companies in the Triangle and nationwide.

The legislation would create 55,000 green cards for graduate students and degree holders in science, engineering and math disciplines. It’s been a hot priority for technology giants like Microsoft and IBM as well as their trade groups and lobbies in Raleigh and Washington.

The vote is an early sign that a broader reassessment of the nation’s immigration policy is about to take place in the wake the presidential election. With the growing clout of minority voters, Congressional Republicans have become more open to discussing changes such as naturalization for children of immigrants, and a bundle of proposals are expected in the coming months.

Green cards are the ideal option for job seekers like Gupta and Kumar. The cards confer permanent resident status and don’t restrict job searches to specific companies, while temporary visas have to be renewed and are tied to working for companies that petition the government to issue visas for hard-to-fill specialized jobs.

What’s more, a green card would allow foreign students to create their own start-up – an appealing option for young whizzes in technology and engineering. A Duke University study issued several years ago said that about a quarter of U.S. start-ups between 1995 and 2005 included at least one foreign-born senior executive or principal.

“I could go and start up my own company or start a project within another company,” said Kumar, a currently unemployed mechanical engineer who specializes in research in high-pressure fuel combustion processes. “The thing is, there are no opportunities for someone with a Ph.D. in this particular area back home.”

The legislation, called the STEM Jobs Act – an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math – that is the subject of the House vote would also make it easier for relatives abroad to reunite with their families in the United States while waiting for a green card. Currently there’s a backlog of 322,000 family members seeking green cards, some having to wait more than two years.

But as popular as the proposal is in the technology industry, it’s also a hot-button issue some companies refuse to touch. In the Triangle, a number of tech companies declined to provide details on filling local vacancies with foreign workers.

Doug Johnson, a Cary engineer who’s been laid off several times in his career, has mixed feelings about expanding local job opportunities for students who come to this country on study-abroad programs.

“To the unemployed, it’s probably not the best news they’ve heard,” said Johnson, who’s currently between consulting jobs. “If companies don’t get that talent here, they’ll go offshore to get them – so what’s the difference?”

It’s not clear how many STEM students would seek opportunities to work here, but what is known is that the 140,000 employment-based green cards granted annually, and 65,000 yearly work visas, are claimed quickly. American companies can’t get enough of these applicants.

SAS, the Cary software company, said in a written statement that it’s “always looking for qualified talent to fill highly skilled statistical and analytical positions” and supports government efforts to create a “deeper talent pool.”

Microsoft recently said it has 3,400 STEM jobs open, 34 percent more than last year.

Some of the waits for green cards are now more than 10 years, because the green cards are limited by country.

“You get students who are really smart, they get a world-class education and then it’s all over – you have to go home,” said Andy Halataei, director of government relations at the Information Technology Industry Council in Washington. “Now there are so many places where people can take their talents. To educate them and to send them away to compete against us – that’s insane.”

N.C. State has about 2,150 international students in the STEM fields, some of whom will commit to more than five years of study in this country.

There’s increasing pressure on the United States to snap up such students or lose them to competing economies, said Thomas Greene, interim director of N.C. State’s Office of International Studies.

“Right now the path is cloaked in mixed signals, which international students receive from the outset,” Greene said. “As non-immigrant students they generally have to pretend they are not interested in immigrating to the U.S. while they are students. And then after graduation – as highly qualified and desirable workers, researchers and professionals – they along with their employers begin the transition process.”

Gupta is in the process of making that transition and evaluating the lifetime benefits of working for an American company.

“I’d have more options,” he said. “If I want to start my own business, it would be very useful for me.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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