Speeches & Floor Statements

Colloquy with Sens. Alexander and Coons: SMART Jobs Act

Posted on May 17, 2012

Mr. ALEXANDER. The Senator from Delaware is not yet on the floor but I know he is coming. Because I know other Senators wish to speak at 2 o'clock, I am going to go ahead with my remarks. When he comes I will let him go ahead with his.

Each year, approximately 50,000 foreign students receive advanced degrees from universities in this country in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. We call those in shorthand STEM degrees -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Of those 50,000 students, at least 17,000 go home to other parts of the world. These are some of the brightest men and women in the world. They are attracted to the best universities in the world. I always say our universities, our great research universities especially, are our secret weapons for job growth. Since World War II, many estimates by the National Academy of Sciences suggest that more than half of our new jobs have come from increases in technology. It is very hard to think of any important new innovation in biology or in the sciences that has not had some sort of government-sponsored research over that time. So our research universities are job factories and our advanced degree holders are the ones who come up with the great ideas.

As a former president of the University of Tennessee, which is a fine research university, I know that increasingly in the science, technology, engineering, and math programs in those universities many of the students are from other countries. These students line up in India and compete, hoping they will get a chance to come to the United States. They have done the same in China. They do this everywhere in the world. About 17,000 of those 50,000 who come for advanced degrees go home each year.

Yesterday, Senator Coons and I introduced legislation that would help those 17,000 students, and we hope more who may come, to come to the United States, get their advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math, and then stay here and create jobs in our country instead of going home and creating them in other countries.

I will have to admit there is a value to students who go home. It is probably our best foreign diplomacy, to have someone come from another country, live here, learn our values, go home and explain those at home. But we want the next Google to be created here, not in China. We want the brightest people in the world. If we are going to attract them here and provide education for them, we want to give them every opportunity to come here. And today we make them go home because of our immigration policy.

The legislation Senator Coons and I introduced yesterday now has the support already of at least two other Senators, Senator Lugar and Senator Isakson, who have asked to cosponsor. It would, No. 1, create a new student visa for citizens of other nations who want to come here and pursue a master's or doctoral degree in science, technology, engineering, and math. No. 2, once they get that degree, the new visa created in this bill would allow them to remain here for 12 months, to look for a job. And, No. 3, once they are employed, the bill establishes a procedure to allow students to change their immigration status and to receive a green card. Finally, these new green cards would not count toward any existing green card limit.

This idea is not new. It has as much support outside of the Senate Chamber as any idea I know about -- from companies such as Microsoft, which tells us they have 2,600 jobs available that require computer science degrees that start at $104,000 a year. They would like to have these students work here and create jobs for us. We know from our own experience the importance of these green-card holders. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, TN, is probably the greatest engineering laboratory in the world. Who runs it? Dr.?Jeffrey Wadsworth ran it. He had a green card from the United Kingdom. Dr.?Thom Mason, who is there now, had a green card from Canada. Thomas Zacharia, the current Deputy Director at ORNL and the father of supercomputing, has a green card from India.

We want them here, not in India, not in the United Kingdom, not in Canada.

I greatly appreciate the leadership of Senator Coons of Delaware on this issue. He has worked hard on it. He has been a leader on it.

I only have one more thing to say about it before I step aside and let him talk about his ideas. In 2005, we began to work on something called the America COMPETES Act in this body. In 2007 we passed it. It was sponsored by the Democratic leader and the Republican leader. It had 35 Democratic sponsors and 35 Republican sponsors. It passed the House. It was reauthorized last year. We asked the best minds in our Nation to tell us what would be the 20 things we could do as a Congress to make sure we are competitive in the future so that we can keep this high standard of living we have come to enjoy. It is a very high standard of living. We have about 5 percent of all the people in the world. We have about 25 percent of all the wealth in the world that we produce each year. How can we keep doing that?

They gave us these 20 ideas and we passed many of them.

It is one of the great successes of our Congress over the last several years, working together. One piece of unfinished business from the America COMPETES Act of 2005 and 2007 was to pin a green card on the foreign student who gets a graduate degree in science, math, technology,or engineering.

The legislation Senator Coons and I offered yesterday would do that. I greatly value his leadership and the way he has approached this. I hope we can work with our colleagues on both side of the aisle to take this idea, turn it into a law, and give our country more of an opportunity to create new jobs as we move forward.

I already asked permission for the next 15 minutes that Senator Coons and I would be in a colloquy. I wish to defer to him for his comments at this time.

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Mr. COONS. I thank very much Senator Alexander. I cannot think of a better person to partner with, to seek advice and guidance and leadership from, on the issue of STEM immigration and education reform than Senator Alexander, a national leader on education policy. Like me, Senator Alexander is the son of a former classroom teacher, but also served as the U.S. Secretary of Education and president of a prominent university, the University of Tennessee. He knows firsthand of the challenges, of the opportunity lost when tens of thousands of foreign nationals, who come here and seek the opportunity to get STEM master's and doctoral degrees in some of our best universities, are then forced to return home to their nation of origin rather than being able to stay here, if they choose, to create jobs, grow businesses, and contribute to our country and our economy.

As someone who, before running for public office, worked with a highly motivated materials-based science company that employed over 1,000 researchers, I too have a sense of what great contributions immigrants have always made to this country, but particularly in these areas of innovation and how they can contribute to our competitiveness.

Senator Alexander's closing comments about the America Competes Act is where we start this conversation. I came to this Senate knowing that my predecessor from Delaware, Senator Kaufman, had been a strong supporter of the America Competes Act, one of the few engineers to serve in the modern Senate. I was happy to take up the cause and press for its reauthorization in the waning days of the 111th Congress.

I met with Senator Alexander last year and we talked about this as one of the most promising unfinished pieces of business in that critical report, "Rising Above The Gathering Storm," and in that vital piece of legislation, the America Competes Act. As Senator Alexander had referenced, the America Competes Act was passed with strong bipartisan support. The was the sort of thing that was focused on moving America forward by identifying strong ideas that had support across the whole country and a lot of different sectors and from both parties. It is my hope this is the beginning of building a strong bipartisan coalition on moving forward on immigration reform.

Let me talk for a minute, if I could, about our history and tradition of immigrants contributing to our country, being a strong part of job creation and growth here, and in particular immigrants who come to this country to be educated in STEM disciplines -- science, technology, engineering, and math.

If you think about it, for most of the last century we had some of the strongest universities in the world. For much of the last 50 years, anyone who came here from a foreign land to get a doctorate in a STEM discipline, if they chose to go home, were going home to a country that wasn't a competitive environment. The United States -- because of our advances in workforce and infrastructure and our legal system, our entrepreneurial culture, our capital markets -- we were the world leaders in innovation and competitiveness. This is no longer the case. We still have the strongest universities in the world, 35 out of the top 50, but today those 17,000 STEM doctoral and master's graduates that Senator Alexander referred to, when we force them to go home to their country of origin rather than allowing them to compete for those jobs here and contribute to the American economy, are finding open arms in nations such as India and China, which are vigorous competitors. They are providing the capital markets, the infrastructure and the workforce, the resources to take advantage of those opportunities. We need an immigration system that responds to the modern economy and the opportunities of a highly competitive modern world. Rather than hemorrhaging these highly skilled folks and having them return home, we should give them an opportunity to participate in being job creators here.

The numbers bear this out. If you take a look at the Fortune 500 companies today, more than 40 percent of them were founded by immigrants or their children. Folks who had come to this country recently from other parts of the world have established companies that employ more than 10 million people worldwide and have combined revenues of more than $4 trillion, a figure greater than the GDP of every country in the world except the United States, China, and Japan. Immigrant-founded startup companies created 450,000 jobs in the United States in the last decade, and collectively they have generated more than $50 billion in sales in a single year.

Let me give one example that has meant a lot to me. I became friends with the founder of Bloom Energy, KR Sridhar. In his native India he got his undergraduate degree, but he came to the United States to get his doctorate in mechanical engineering and then went on to be a researcher at NASA's Ames Center and made a critical invention in solid oxide fuel cells. He runs Bloom Energy, which has already created 1,000 jobs. Last week the Governor of Delaware and my senior Senator, Tom Carper, joined others at the site of a former shuttered Chrysler plant for the groundbreaking of a facility that Bloom Energy will make possible.

Why would we want a capable, bright contributor to our economy like KR to be forced to go home to his country of India, rather than welcoming him here and giving him a chance to participate, to contribute, and potentially become not just an American business leader but an American citizen? We need to make it easier for the next generation of inventors and innovators to create jobs here.

This bill, as Senator Alexander has laid out, is relatively simple. It creates a new class of visas for foreign students to pursue STEM master's and doctoral degree programs, and allows us to continue a conversation about how do we recognize the longstanding central contribution to our economy, our culture, and our country of immigrants.

I believe there are other areas of immigration reform that have to be on the table, that we have to move forward on. I am eager to move forward on family-focused reform and on other areas as well, where I am a cosponsor of other immigration bills, but my hope is this legislation will get the attention it deserves, will get the broad support from Members of both sides of the aisle it deserves, and that it will form part of a compromise that will address the needs of all the stakeholders in immigration reform in a responsible and balanced manner.

This legislation is not the end of the road, but it is a critical step forward in making sure we continue a bipartisan, thoughtful, and constructive dialog on how do we deal with an immigration system that is broken and that doesn't make America as competitive as it could be.

If I could, I want to close by thanking Senator Alexander for his leadership on this, for allowing me to work with him and to produce a bill that is streamlined, that is simple, that is accessible, and that I think can contribute to making America a land that continues to welcome and celebrate the real job creators, inventors, and innovators from all parts of the world. Senator Alexander.

Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, I say Senator Coons is one of the most eloquent speakers we have in the Senate. He did a beautiful job in explaining the bill. I hope it attracts support from both Republicans and Democrats. He mentioned the fact there are other immigration issues -- and there are. There are a number of ones I wish to work on and get something done. I was here when we tried to get a comprehensive immigration plan a few years ago. It had strong bipartisan support, but one of the lessons we learned, I think, in that effort was that we do not do comprehensive well here in the Senate. Sometimes it is better to go step by step. That has been true for a long time.

We remember Henry Clay as the Great Compromiser, but Henry Clay's greatest compromise was not passed by Henry Clay. He failed. It nearly ruined his health and he went to Massachusetts to recover from it. A Senator named Stephen A. Douglas, from Illinois, the home of our assistant Democratic leader, came to the floor and introduced the Clay compromise section by section and each section passed with a different coalition, with Senator Sam Houston being the only Senator who voted for each one of them.

So my hope is that with the broad support we have for this very simple idea -- pin a green card on the lapel of a gifted graduate of an advanced program in science, technology, engineering, and math, and allow them to stay here and create jobs here instead of forcing them to go home -- I hope we have such strong support for this idea that we can go ahead and pass it, and then we can follow that up with the other necessary steps we need to take on immigration, and hopefully we can do that with a coalition that represents Democrats and Republicans as well. This is a great idea.

Somebody might say: Well, why don't they just do it the way we do it now? Right now, it is H-1B visas. As everyone who is an employer knows, they are complicated, burdensome, and there are not enough of them. This is simple. It is a new visa. They get it if they are admitted, and they get to stay 12 months while they look for a job. If they get a job, they get a green card, and there is no cap on the number, and that is the idea.

I thank Senator Coons for his leadership. I look forward to turning this good idea, this piece of unfinished business in the bipartisan America COMPETES Act, into law.

Mr. COONS. In closing, I will just say that the economics of this legislation is simple, but, as Senator Alexander and I recognize, any step toward immigration reform is complicated. Making it easier for foreign-born, American-educated innovators to stay in the United States is just one aspect of many of the urgently needed steps to reform our outdated immigration system.

I see that Senator Durbin has come to the floor. I am proud to cosponsor the Dream Act. I also support the Uniting American Families Act. There are other pieces of legislation that are essential to allow us to recognize and to strengthen the role immigrants play in the fabric of our country. I think this opportunity today to move forward on a bipartisan bill that focuses on this one area without caps, with a new class of immigration visa, is an important contribution to moving this discussion forward for all of us.

I thank Senator Alexander.

Mr. ALEXANDER. Thank you, Mr.?President.