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Rep. Zoe Lofgren Introduces IDEA Act of 2011

On June 14, 2011, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) introduced HR 2161, the Immigration Driving Entrepreneurship in America (IDEA) Act of 2011. This bill amends the Immigration and Nationality Act, calling for efficiencies in the immigration system that can strengthen the U.S. economy through innovation, investment, and research.
Current laws allow 85,000 H-1B visas to be issued each year, and discussions on immigration law reform have typically addressed raising caps on these visas.  But because they are temporary, engineers, entrepreneurs and others are forced to leave the U.S. after graduation or when a work contract ends.
Lofgren argues that temporary visas push talent, high tech companies, and new jobs overseas, making theU.S. less competitive. Her bill favors permanent residency through reforms to current H-1B and L-1B visa programs, and through newly created green card programs. The main provisions of the legislation call for:

  • allowing employers to obtain green cards for highly-skilled, foreign-born, American-educated workers  in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)
  • enabling these immigrants to establish permanent residency so they can build lives, careers and businesses in the U.S.
  • developing a new green card category for entrepreneurs who establish start-up companies that create jobs for at least ten American workers
  • providing permanent residency to entrepreneurs who secure a certain level of venture capital funding
  • protecting American workers with wage increases and ways to better prepare them for jobs in technology with investments in national STEM education

HR 2161 has garnered support from companies that include Intel, Oracle and Google. Lofgren points to statistics that foreign-born students earn 40 percent of the master’s degrees in engineering and 53 percent of PhD degrees in engineering from American universities. She is quoted saying, “It makes no sense for us to educate the world’s brightest students and then ship them back to their home countries.”
While many political and business leaders agree that immigration law changes are needed to attract and retain highly skilled workers and entrepreneurs in the U.S., not everyone is convinced that more visas are the solution.
Peter Cleveland, Director of Global Public Policy at Intel, does supports eliminating employment-based green cards and per-country visa limits, but he believes the total number of immigrants entering the U.S. each year should remain constant.  He argues that allocating the same number of visas to every country means that theU.S. is missing out on a pool of highly skilled engineers and scientists from countries like India and China.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) also believes the numbers should remain constant. He has introduced legislation that would eliminate the green card lottery program and reallocate those 50,000 visas to foreign-born individuals with a graduate degree in science or engineering from an American university.  Issa says this will result in more skilled workers for the U.S., which is what we need.
To date, the Immigration Policy and Enforcement Subcommittee has not gained the necessary support for the IDEA Act from a majority member.  Even without a GOP co-sponsor, though, Lofgren’s bill is expected to initiate bipartisan dialogue, which is seen as an encouraging starting point to reform.