It appears there is bipartisan agreement that there should be more visas for foreign graduates with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) degrees. But, what seems missing is any rational focus on whether there is a need for more STEM workers.

A bill pushed by Republicans in the House of Representatives in September to increase visas nearly passed. The final vote tally was 258 to 158, including 30 Democrats voting in favor, but since it was introduced in a process that limited debate and barred amendments, the bill failed under the requirement for a super majority. According to the New York Times, “Democratic leaders accused Republicans of partisan posturing by rushing a vote on an immigration issue when, they said, bipartisan accord was within reach.”  The Republican-backed bill failed because the Democrats were unwilling to give the Republicans bragging rights for their approach.

The interest in Congress to increase visas for STEM graduates responds to the aggressive lobbying by high-tech firms and by the universities across the country that are churning out graduates. The most frequently heard argument is that we are training highly qualified foreign students and then – because there are not enough visas available for them – we are sending them back to their home countries to compete against our companies. To avoid this, the argument goes, we should make sure U.S. jobs are available for them. This argument does not make sense.

The U.S. is currently issuing visas to about 100,000 foreign professionals each year with a special allocation for graduates with advanced degrees from U.S. universities. In addition, foreign graduates of U.S. universities have the opportunity to remain and work in the U.S. for up to 29 months under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program.  According to the Institute for International Education, in 2011 there were more than 76,000 foreign graduates from U.S. universities working in the U.S. in OPT status. Could it be that there is there a need for still more visas?

According to the professional workers department of the AFL-CIO, “If a genuine labor shortage existed, wages in these fields would have risen dramatically in ways they have not. … In addition, unemployment rates in this sector have increased dramatically over the past year, with engineers reaching their highest unemployment rate since at least 1972.” (Gaming the System 2012: Guest Worker Programs and Professional and Technical Workers in the U.S.)

The discussion should focus on whether more foreign STEM graduates are needed and whether worker shortages truly exist. The data refute these contentions. What appears to be the case is that even current levels of foreign STEM worker admissions creates competition with U.S. graduates, resulting in the depression of wages for both the U.S. and foreign graduates.

If we genuinely are concerned about STEM graduates going back to their home countries to compete against U.S. high-tech firms, then we should limit the student visas to a level that can be absorbed upon their graduation without creating unwanted completion with U.S. graduates.