New Proposed STAPLE Act: H1B Exemption for PhD Degrees

In a new twist to the various proposed rule changes and legislation affecting H1B visas, there is a new bill in Congress that would exempt foreign born PhD degree holders from the annual quota.  The Stopping Trained in America PhDs from Leaving the Economy (STAPLE) Act is designed to retain those foreigners that earn their PhD degree in a US university, and prevent the loss of that ‘brain capital’ out of the country.

The Basic Facts About STAPLE

The idea behind the STAPLE Act is simple: to encourage top PhD degree holders to remain in the US and work, so that the benefits of their US education are retained. 

As one of the bill’s sponsors commented: “With thousands of high-skilled jobs going unfilled, the STAPLE Act makes sure American companies are getting the talent they need. By stapling a green card or (a) visa to their diplomas, these professionals can invent and innovate new discoveries that grow our economy.”

The image of a green card or H1B visa being actually ‘stapled’ to the diploma is quite vivid, and shows that there is some real concern that heavy limitations on work visas could inhibit American businesses from accessing top talent.

There are few parameters in the new bill that would accomplish this goal:

  • The PhD degree must be earned in a US university
  • The degree must be in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM)
  • Qualified foreign nationals would be exempt from both the H1B visa annual quota, as well as any limits on employment-based green cards

Once Again, Indian Skilled Workers Take Center Stage

An interesting fact about this bill is that it would largely benefit Indian students, since they are the majority of foreign PhD candidates in the US pursuing STEM degrees.  Also, it would encourage potential students to take up their degree program in a US university, if they knew there was an easier pathway to either an H1B visa or green card residency.  That is one of the very real problems now with so much H1B program uncertainty, as many potential students or workers are wary of the future for foreign workers in the US.

There would be a dual effect in passing this bill, since it is Indian IT workers who stand to lose access to the majority of H1B visas as rules tighten.  This has led to some outcry from the Indian government and other pro-visa groups such as the US IT sector in Silicon Valley. The STAPLE Act may placate some of these complaints, and now places the onus on the hopeful workers to seek a higher degree in the US, rather than expect a low-paid, entry level IT contractor role.

The “Best and Brightest” Rather Than the Least Expensive Workers

The STAPLE Act would fit nicely with President Trump’s stated intention to use the H1B visa program to only hire the “best and brightest” foreign workers.  It is unlikely to raise much opposition, since a PhD holder would typically expect the highest salary level and would most likely be a direct hire of a US company.  IT outsourcing firms would not be tempted to use an advanced degree holder for simple contract work, and it would be cost-prohibitive to pay them the highest wage level.

The H1B sponsor would still have to show that the position was advertised and offered to US candidates, but given the number of STEM positions available and lack of qualified US workers this would not be a difficult hurdle.  The proposed bill is yet another way to streamline and improve the H1B program, and at this stage probably makes the most sense since the exemption of having a PhD is fairly high standard to meet for an applicant.

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  • July 18th, 2019
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