House Passes Sweeping America COMPETES Act

Bill contains STEM immigration, workforce development measures

By Roy Maurer February 7, 2022
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House Passes Sweeping America COMPETES Act

​Immigration and workforce development provisions related to higher education were included in a sprawling omnibus bill passed by House lawmakers Feb. 4.

The America Creating Opportunities for Manufacturing, Pre-Eminence in Technology, and Economic Strength Act of 2022 (America COMPETES Act) is intended to boost U.S. competitiveness with China, specifically in semiconductor manufacturing and research.

The bill—made up of several previous proposals and hundreds of new amendments—authorizes billions of dollars to boost domestic research and development of semiconductors, as well as critical supply chains and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and training.

House lawmakers passed the bill along party lines, and it now heads to the Senate to be reconciled with that chamber's bipartisan version, which was approved in June 2021. But reaching an agreement on the two versions is expected to be difficult because Republicans have since turned against the measure, largely due to its inclusion of dozens of other provisions related to climate change, immigration, labor organizing and trade.

SHRM Seeks Changes

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) supports the workforce development and immigration provisions in the America COMPETES Act but is concerned about the addition of labor relations proposals from the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which passed the House last year.

"Though the legislation includes provisions designed to retain international students and skill up domestic workers, it includes several provisions from the PRO Act that would create an imbalance in labor-management relations," SHRM said. "These provisions would apply to employers accepting federal funding, as well as their contractors and subcontractors, impacting workplaces regardless of their relationship with the federal government. The House-passed bill would undermine employee privacy by abolishing the use of secret ballots in union elections and diminish the role of HR in shaping the final terms of collective bargaining agreements. SHRM will continue to work with both chambers of Congress to ensure that the bill signed by the president maintains balanced labor-management relations."      

Immigration Reforms

The America COMPETES Act contains two significant immigration reforms: a new visa for entrepreneurs and a direct path to permanent residence for immigrants who earn a Ph.D. in a STEM field in the U.S.

"While larger structural reforms to our immigration system remain necessary, the immigration provisions of the America COMPETES Act represent important incremental changes that would create new opportunities for immigrant entrepreneurs to build business in the United States and provide a direct path to permanent residence for noncitizens who earn a Ph.D. from qualified institutions in certain STEM fields," said Jeremy Robbins, executive director of the American Immigration Council, a policy and research group in Washington, D.C. "If adopted by the Senate, these provisions will encourage entrepreneurship and innovation, and help many immigrants find a way to bring their talent to the United States on a permanent basis."

The new W visa category for startups would be available for foreign entrepreneurs and startup founders, their essential employees and their spouses and children. Entrepreneurs could apply for legal permanent resident status if their startup proves successful.

The provision related to foreign Ph.D. graduates of U.S. universities could benefit several thousand new graduates each year. Notably, immigrants made up almost half of all STEM Ph.D. students at U.S. universities in the 2019-2020 academic year, according to data from the Department of Education.

"The provisions in the America COMPETES Act would modestly raise the amount and skill levels of U.S. immigration," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based policy and research group. "These are desirable changes, but the reforms are changes at the margins of the existing system confined to high-skilled individuals and entrepreneurs. This is not a substitute for broader substantive reform for all classes of immigrants. Congress should consider a total overhaul of the legal immigration system, shifting from a focus on family reunification to one of economic growth."

The bill also contains numerous workforce development and higher education measures, including expanding registered apprenticeships and allowing workers to use Pell grants to rapidly retrain through short-term programs.

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