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Immigration Bill Would Help DREAMERs, Boost STEM

K-12 education overhaul may be on the back burner in Congress these days, but immigration reform sure isn't. And there are obviously big implications in a new, widely anticipated bipartisan Senate bill for students who come to the United States as children without documentation and graduate from American high schools. (Many call themslves "DREAMers" after the DREAM act, versions of which would grant them citizenship.)

The bill creates an arguably long and bumpy path to citizenship for those without documentation who came to the country in 2011 or before. But folks who came to the nation as children could go a much speedier route, provided they pass a criminal background check, graduate from high school (or get a GED), and complete two years of post-secondary education, or spend four years in the military, or other uniformed services.

"This version of the DREAM act is one of the most generous and inclusive to date," said James Ferg-Cadima, a regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Washington. And he said the measure is particularly promising because "it's housed within this larger package of reform."

The much longer path to citizenship for folks who came to the country as adults has its own implications for education. To eventually become citizens, immigrants would have to pursue the study of English. (Very helpful graphic on the different paths here.)

And buried deep within the measure are ways to generate new resources to bolster science, technology, engineering, and math (aka STEM) education.

Here's how: Essentially, the bill, which was introduced by eight senators from both sides of the aisle, would boost the number of so-called "H-1B" visas which are used to temporarily employ workers with special skills (including in areas such as engineering). That increase would result in more money in fees collected from those visas. Plus, the bill would raise fees on Green Cards (for permanent, legal residents.)

The extra money raised—estimates are around $150 million—would go, in part, to STEM education, at both the higher education and K-12 levels. Sixty percent of the funds, for instance, would go to help support scholarships to help low-income and minority students study STEM in college. And another 12 percent would help minority-serving institutions (for example, historically black colleges) bolster their STEM programs.

But another 15 percent would be for public-private partnerships to bolster STEM at the K-12 level. Essentially, the measure directs the National Science Foundation to use the funds to ensure that more K-12 students graduate from high school ready to tackle college coursework in STEM subjects. But it would give NSF very broad leeway in figuring out exactly how to implement that provision, according to James Brown, the executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, an alliance of business, education, and professional groups based in Washington. NSF could develop a new program, or just funnel the new dollars to ones that already exist and could use a boost.

The idea of having some money collected from immigration programs go to STEM education isn't entirely new—already roughly $100 million from visa fees go to NSF, Brown said. But the measure would be a substantial boost for those programs—and it could enable NSF to try some new approaches, he explained. Another measure, introduced by many of the senators who authored the bipartisan immigration bill, also would direct money from H1-B visas and Green Card fees to STEM education, but the vast majority of the money would go to the U.S. Department of Education, not NSF, according to Brown.

In the scheme of the entire federal budget, $150 million may not sound like much, but right now, federal resources for investing in STEM are rare (just ask the folks who are dealing with the automatic cuts known as sequestration), and the change could help, STEM advocates say. Will this stay in? Tough to say. The STEM portion got called out by Wall Street Journal reporter Sara Murray on Twitter as one of the top 10 "pet projects" in the bill.

The immigration bill, which is also known as "the Gang of 8" legislation, was introduced last week by a group of eight senators, including Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Marco Rubio R-Fla. Also on the list: Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a key administration ally on K-12 issues. Lawmakers have been holding hearings on it this past week.

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