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Allow more green cards for foreign techies, Congress told

Two groups at odds over raising the H-1B quota agree on this: the need for more permanent resident passes for foreigners who earn advanced science and tech degrees on U.S. turf.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 10:53 a.m. PDT to clarify a description of IEEE-USA.

High-tech companies and groups representing American engineers are famous for clashing over whether it's a good idea to allow U.S. companies to hire more foreign workers on temporary H-1B visas.

But what's sometimes forgotten in the debate is a key point of agreement among at least some representatives of the warring sides. A new joint letter (click for PDF) to Congress from the Semiconductor Industry Association and IEEE-USA, the U.S. branch of the world's largest professional society of electronics engineers, seeks to remind politicos of that common ground, which is this: we need more green cards.

A massive immigration bill may have fallen flat over unrelated points of contention earlier this year, but the groups' leaders suggested Congress still has time to salvage green-card changes. Their wishlist goes something like this:

* Raise the cap for employer-sponsored green cards.
* Exempt from that quota are any foreigners who receive advanced degrees in math, science, engineering and technology fields from U.S. universities.
* Create a new foreign student visa category that allows foreigners who hold bachelor's or higher degrees in those fields and have a job offer in hand to go directly from a student visa to a green card.
* Oh, and while you're at it, exempt spouses and children of those green-card holders from the cap, too.

(The position isn't exactly new: SIA President George Scalise has long advocated issuing green cards to gifted students, and IEEE-USA has argued expanding the permanent immigration program is a more sustainable way of retaining a robust high-tech work force than the temporary H-1B technique.)

Right now, 51 percent of master's and 71 percent of Ph.D. graduates in electrical and electronic engineering from U.S. universities are foreign nationals, but the average green card applicant has to wait 5 to 10 years to gain permanent residency status, the letter argued. In the view of SIA and IEEE-USA, that's too long to wait if American companies want to remain globally competitive in science and tech fields, so foreign graduates in those realms should get special treatment.

Green cards offer more privileges--including the right to change jobs and become a naturalized U.S. citizen--than the "non-immigrant" H-1B visa, which can be renewed for up to six years but, as critics charge, makes visa holders "indentured servants" to the employers who hire them. The IEEE-USA has argued in the past that because of those key differences, green cards are less prone to abuse.

That view, however, is not universally shared. The Programmers Guild, a group that represents American computer programmers and has been especially hostile to H-1B increases, argues the changes sought by IEEE-USA, SIA and their ilk would be a green light for firms to hire foreigners instead of qualified Americans.

The proposal to create a new visa category to fast-track students into permanent resident status is also troublesome, said Kim Berry, the group's president. "These proposals would crowd American students out of U.S. universities as even getting (a) B.S. degree would be a virtual guaranteed path to U.S. citizenship," he said in an e-mail interview.