Senate Immigration Subcommittee Chair Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) are working together on a comprehensive immigration reform bill that they plan to introduce this year. In a recent Washington Post article, the senators laid out their bill's "four pillars":

  • requiring biometric Social Security cards to ensure that illegal workers cannot get jobs;
  • strengthening border security and interior enforcement;
  • creating a process for admitting temporary workers; and
  • implementing a "tough but fair path" to legalization for workers already in the United States.

One of the bill's most controversial features is the national identification card – i.e., a Social Security card with biometrics and other antifraud and tamper-proof features. The card would be used to verify individuals' employment eligibility via an enhanced (or "supercharged") E-Verify type of program.

Senators Schumer and Graham, however, have stated that each card's unique biometric identifier would be stored only on the card. In other words, "no government database would house everyone's information. The cards would not contain any private information, medical information or tracking devices. The card would be a high-tech version of the Social Security card that citizens already have."

The bill would require prospective employers to swipe the cards through a machine to confirm a person's identity and immigration status. Employers that refuse to swipe the card or otherwise knowingly hire unauthorized workers would face stiff fines and, for repeat offenders, prison sentences.

Another important feature of the immigration reform proposal is that the path to legalization would include "community service" as a penalty.

Guest worker program, too

The bill introduces a guest worker program, although from the scanty description provided, it is hard to determine how it would work. In reference to the guest worker program, the senators have said their blueprint creates a "rational system" for admitting lower-skilled workers.

"Our current system prohibits lower-skilled immigrants from coming here to earn money and then returning home," Senators Schumer and Graham wrote. "Our framework would facilitate this desired circular migration by allowing employers to hire immigrants if they can show they were unsuccessful in recruiting an American to fill an open position; allowing more lower-skilled immigrants to come here when our economy is creating jobs and fewer in a recession; and permitting workers who have succeeded in the workplace, and contributed to their communities over many years, the chance to earn a green card."

Nanotechnology Report

On March 25, 2010, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a document called the "Report to the President and Congress on the Third Assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative" recommending that the U.S. government help nanotechnology companies attract and retain trained professional foreign nationals who are needed in the industry. More specifically, the Report recommends that the federal government, Congress and the present administration, take action to retain foreign professionals with advanced degrees in science and engineering. The Report states:

Congress and the administration need to take steps to retain scientific and engineering talent trained in the United States by developing a program to provide U.S. Permanent Resident Cards for foreign individuals who receive an advanced degree in science or engineering at an accredited institution in the United States and for whom proof of permanent employment in that scientific or engineering discipline exists.

The Report, however, does not clearly state why it makes such a recommendation. But, with universities in the United States training a large number of foreign professionals every year, including scientists and engineers who work and conduct research in nanotechnology and are unable to obtain appropriate visas or authorization to work for U.S. nanotechnology companies, it is not farfetched to conclude the United States is not retaining enough talent to compete in the future. Sadly, these talented and newly trained professionals return to their home countries, many of which compete with the United States, where they usually go on to make valuable contributions and advances in nanotechnology. This problem is further aggravated by the fact the United States continues to fall behind Europe and China in nanotechnology.

Senators Schumer and Graham's comprehensive immigration reform bill provides some hope by proposing to allow foreign nationals who receive advanced degrees from U.S. universities to be exempted from green card caps. With thousands of science and engineering students set to graduate next month, this issue is as timely as ever.

Dim prospects for passage

Although not perfect, this bill contains important features that could be deemed crucial to fix many of the ailments in our immigration system. President Obama and Senate Democrats have clearly signaled that they support this bill and will continue to push for its passage this year. However, the crucially needed second Republican to co-sponsor the bill is nowhere to be found. Rumors abound that most of the Republicans who were expected to join in this effort are either no longer willing to support the bill or still undecided. Because this bill is not only comprehensive, but also controversial, at least from a political perspective, as of today, it does not seem to have the support necessary to ensure its passage.