Senate passes immigration bill and eases J-1 fears

July 02, 2013

The US Senate has passed an immigration reform bill, bringing closer measures that would increase the availability of post-study work visas and permanent migration routes for international postgraduates. The final bill also watered down proposals that could have damaged the J-1 summer exchange programme.

After weeks of negotiations, the reform bill S.744 passed the Senate with a 68-to-32 vote and was widely seen as a victory for higher education; it also includes measures that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the US.

Nafsa, welcomed the bill and in a statement said, “Nafsa: Association of International Educators joins the many organisations that are working tirelessly for immigration reform in celebrating today’s strong bipartisan vote by the Senate for a common-sense immigration process that works for all of us. S.744, as passed by the Senate, will make the United States stronger, safer, more competitive and more just.”

Under the bill, international students that earned PhDs at American universities would be eligible for green cards, and overseas students that complete a master’s degree in the STEM subject fields would be eligible to petition for one. The bill also exempts colleges from caps on H-1B temporary worker visas, meaning they would be able to freely recruit foreign researchers.

Marlene M. Johnson, Nafsa Executive Director and CEO, “The H-1B provisions in the bill permit the US higher education community to bring many of the best minds from across the world to our campuses to teach our students and conduct critical research. We also support dual intent for foreign students and the restoration of the Secretary of State’s authority to waive personal appearance for visa applicants that present no security concerns.”

She added, “These measures, along with others, will help foster the academic and scholarly mobility that helps keep today’s colleges and universities competitive and that helps the United States make friends in the world.”

In a statement, President Obama welcomed the vote, “Today, with a strong bipartisan vote, the United States Senate delivered for the American people, bringing us a critical step closer to fixing our broken immigration system once and for all.” He called on the House of Representatives to pass the bill. However, passage through the Republican-dominated House is not expected to be smooth, although opposition is not thought to relate to education provisions.

After intense lobbying from sponsors and agents involved in the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program, the final Senate bill changed proposed measures that, as previously reported, threatened to severely curtail the scheme.

A draft bill proposed to redefine exchange visitors as “workers” and sponsors and agents as “foreign labour recruiters”. However, the final bill removed such definitions, and allows sponsors and agents to collect fees from the programme.

Michael McCarry of the Alliance for International Education and Cultural Exchange welcomed the amendments, although expressed concerns about measures to limit programme fees within two years and other enforcement and liability issues.

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