WASHINGTON — Undocumented students who graduate from high school and enroll in college in a science, technology or math program would be eligible for temporary student visas in an immigration-overhaul bill introduced Tuesday by Sen. Michael Bennet.
Bennet, a Colorado Democrat and former Denver Public Schools superintendent, said his proposed bill also would make it easier for students who graduate with advanced degrees in science or math to stay and work in the United States — particularly if there is a need for them.
It would create a new type of green-card category for foreign students.
"I've had a number of conversations with large- and small-business owners in Colorado who have made it clear that our visa system is putting them at a serious disadvantage," Bennet said.
Currently, foreign students with advanced degrees often get stuck waiting for a temporary work visa requested by U.S. companies.
There are 140,000 green cards a year granted to skilled workers, according to The Wall Street Journal. About 210,000 EB-3 visas for highly skilled workers are backlogged for Indians alone, according to the National Foundation for American Policy.
More than 40 percent of 2010 Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. These companies employ more than 3.6 million people nationally and generate more than $4.2 trillion annually, according to Bennet's office.
"Demand in the USA for engineering and scientists is strong and will continue to grow with the upcoming retirement of many baby boomers," Ralph Christie, chief executive of Merrick and Co. in Lakewood, said in an e-mailed statement. "Bennet's proposal of a pathway to more visas can be one approach to providing additional engineering and scientific human resource talent in a time when it is needed for our country."
Alina Handorean, co-president of the Post-Doctoral Association at the University of Colorado, said much of her time is spent helping other math and engineering students navigate the visa system when they have jobs waiting.
"There are many who have a job, and because of this visa problem it can take a long time," said Handorean, who was born in Romania and is studying air quality at CU. "I have a job ... but others do not."
The bill also creates a new fund through visa fees that would establish scholarships for low-income K-12 students for science, math and technology training. It also would provide opportunities for military-service members and unemployed workers.
Bennet's staffers say the senator is trying to respond to the "brain drain" caused by a broken immigration system.
This immigration bill doesn't go as far as the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which Bennet also supports.
The DREAM Act would give undocumented students a shot at becoming citizens if they arrived when they were younger than 15, have good moral character and graduate from high school and finish two years of military service, college or vocational school.
That law, though, has a low likelihood of passage. Even when the U.S. Senate was controlled by more Democrats, it failed in 2010 by five votes.