Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) may have help in their multiyear effort to bring more high-skill workers from overseas into the U.S. under a bill Representative Zoe Lofgren introduced today.

Lofgren, a Democrat from California, introduced a bill that would provide green cards, or permanent residence, to more foreign students who earn at least a master’s degree in science or engineering at U.S. universities. It also gives green cards to foreign entrepreneurs who start companies employing five or more U.S. citizens.

Technology companies, from Intel and Microsoft to International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM), have backed efforts to make it easier for scientists and engineers from abroad to come to the U.S. Many scientists come to the U.S. for their post- graduate education and leave when they can’t get a visa to stay, said Peter Cleveland, Intel’s vice president of global public policy.

“We drop the ball when we let these individuals take this education elsewhere,” he said in a phone interview. “We should have them stay here and work for Apple, work for Facebook, work for Intel.”

Graduates with master’s degrees and higher in science, technology, engineering and math who get jobs related to their degrees would qualify for green cards under Lofgren’s bill. Entrepreneurs from abroad would get a temporary residence and could petition to stay permanently after two years if their businesses are still open and employing U.S. citizens.

Republican Co-Sponsor

Lofgren is looking for a Republican to co-sponsor the bill.

“I hope we will have Republican support,” she said in a phone interview today.

The bill is broader than past efforts, said Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, citing other bills that haven’t been passed. In 2009, Representative Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, introduced a bill that would have allowed in more foreign graduates with doctorate degrees. It never left the House Judiciary Committee.

“There’s a lot more master’s than Ph.Ds,” Hira said.

Current laws cap the number of employment-based green cards at 140,000 per year. Under the bill, the green cards for graduates and entrepreneurs wouldn’t count against the quotas.

The bill also would keep workers’ spouses and children from counting against caps and reclassify some workers, such as fashion models, to other visas.

Intel’s Support

The bill “would not only make it easier for U.S. companies to hire the workforce they need but will address the concerns of foreign-born workers who must deal with the challenges and uncertainties of the immigration system,” Intel said in an e- mailed statement. About 6 percent of Intel’s 45,000 domestic employees are on visas, Cleveland said last month.

Companies would pay a fee of about $2,000 to get graduates the green cards, which would fund the visa program, as well as scholarships for U.S. students in science, technology, engineering and math.

“We ought to keep the best and brightest and we ought to educate the American students,” Lofgren said. “The two are not in opposition to each other.”

Intel and other companies have lobbied for green cards for foreign scientists and engineers.

“We’re highly dependent on very, very high-skilled engineers,” said Brian Toohey, president of the Semiconductor Industry Association, which represents companies such as IBM and Texas Instruments Inc. “We don’t have enough engineers at the right skill level in this country.”

Temporary Visas

When graduates from abroad find jobs at U.S. companies, they often first apply for temporary visas, such as H1-Bs. The process of turning that into a green card can often take up to a decade, during which employees can’t leave their jobs, Cleveland said.

Some companies abuse the H-1B program by using it to import cheap labor in place of local workers, Lofgren said at a Congressional hearing in March. The bill gives the Department of Labor more oversight to ensure companies pay the prevailing wages, she said. It also keeps them from charging fees to recruit workers.

“These individuals get frustrated,” Cleveland said. “They think to themselves, ‘Why not go back to Chengdu or go back to New Delhi and create the next big company there?’”

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