University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft and the heads of several other state universities and colleges are urging Congress to pass the immigration reform legislation presented this week in Washington, framing it as an issue of fairness and economics.
One component of the immigration package would award permanent work permits to immigrants who obtain advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math — known as the STEM fields — from American universities.
"It is very important for the United States to grant visas to STEM graduates, and that's a concept that has enjoyed bipartisan support," Genshaft said on a conference call with an immigration reform advocacy group. "Our foreign STEM graduates drive the United States' innovation; they create patents and help our economy."
Genshaft was joined by presidents Eric Barron of Florida State University, Donna Shalala of the University of Miami and Eduardo Padron of Miami-Dade College in a conference call organized by the Partnership for a New American Economy.
Genshaft noted that by 2018, about 200,000 STEM jobs would go unfilled in the United States. She said 120,000 computer engineering jobs are generated annually, but only 40,000 people graduate with degrees in computer science each year.
There are 984 international students in master's or doctoral programs at USF, although it could not be determined how many of those were in STEM fields. Seven of the 10 most popular advanced degree programs for international students are in science, technology, engineering or math.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators Monday proposed a sweeping overhaul of the nation's patchwork immigration system. It includes a controversial pathway to citizenship for the 11 million existing undocumented immigrants, among other provisions.
A White House spokesman said the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013 largely mirrors President Barack Obama's position. Some conservative Republicans are leery of the plan.
"This is the year of comprehensive reform for our immigration system," said Shalala. "In many ways it will define us as a nation by our ability to put a bipartisan piece of legislation together and to pass it."