Indian science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students in the U.S could be the biggest beneficiaries of a proposal in Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s ‘Initiative on Technology and Innovation’ released this week.

Ms. Clinton has promised automatic ‘green card’ or permanent residency to students who complete a master’s degree or a PhD from a U.S university.

Indian students mostly in STEM

 There are 1,32,888 Indian students in the U.S currently, second only to the Chinese. There are 3,04,040 Chinese students. Indian students are mostly graduate students, and mostly in the STEM category. Of all the international undergraduate students, 30 per cent are Chinese, where as Indians make only three per cent of the pool.

Immigration experts who are familiar with the trends approximate that as high as 80 per cent of the Indian students could be in the STEM category and therefore in a position to benefit from Ms. Clinton’s policy.

Proposal around for a while 

Automatic green card for STEM graduates has been a proposal that has been around for a while, and Republican Mitt Romney promised it during his presidential campaign in 2012.

For decades, foreign students who come to the U.S on F-1 visas could be employed in the country under what is called the Optional Practical Training (OPT). In 2008 the Bush administration allowed STEM students to stay as long as 29 months, and in 2015, the Obama administration extended it to 36 months.

 “Indian students stand to benefit a lot if this policy [Ms. Clinton’s] comes through. As of now, a STEM graduate can continue to stay in the U.S. for a maximum of three years after the course. If they have not got an H-1B visa by then, they either go back to India or go back to a student visa. This uncertainty leaves them in a state of flux immediately after graduation,” said Aparna Dave, an immigration lawyer based in Washington.

Always in demand

Applications for H-1B visas exceed the stipulated quota by several times every year. For several years now, annually, there are 65,000 H-1B visas that are in the general category and an additional 20,000 meant for STEM graduates from American universities under the category ‘advanced degree exemption.’

Ms. Dave pointed out that while IT companies are aggressive in using the H-1B visas, companies in other sectors are usually lukewarm to the programme. “Many companies that are not primarily in IT are averse to getting involved in the immigration process,” she said. As a result, a mechanical, chemical or environmental engineering graduate has lesser chances to continue in the U.S, even if a corresponding job may be available with a company. If STEM graduates are automatically eligible for a green card, they could compete in the open job market and companies will find it easier to fill vacancies or expand with fresh talent, said Ms. Dave.

Move to tap top talent

Ms. Clinton explains her policy proposal as a move to “attract and retain the top talent from around the world.”

“As part of comprehensive immigration reform, Hillary would “staple” a green card to STEM masters and PhDs from accredited institutions, and support visas that allow top entrepreneurs from abroad to come to the U.S., build companies, and create jobs for American workers,” the document said.

Controversial topics, in poll year

But OPT and the number of extra STEM talent that the American job market requires every year remain controversial topics, more so in an election year. Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, has made vague remarks about retaining international students who come to the U.S, but his politics remain anti-immigration.

“The STEM OPT extension program masquerades as a mentoring and training program for foreign graduates with STEM degrees from U.S. universities; in practice it is a large temporary work-visa program for foreign workers with virtually no rules …There are no enforceable wage standards or protections for the foreign students in the OPT program or for the U.S. workers with whom the OPT workers compete. Employers are permitted to deeply undercut locally prevailing wages for jobs in STEM fields. Employers are not required to first recruit U.S. workers or even publicly advertise jobs to them before hiring OPT workers, meaning that employers do not have to establish the existence of a labour shortage before hiring workers through OPT,” Ronil Hira, Associate Professor of Public Policy at Howard University, Washington DC told the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year.  Automatic green cards to STEM graduates is not a proposal that will go unchallenged.

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