The U.S. Senate passed a monumental bill to overhaul immigration law on Thursday that higher-education leaders hailed as giving foreign-born graduate students unprecedented access to green cards, a provision that research universities said would help them compete for top talent by giving the students greater certainty of landing jobs after they graduate.
The bipartisan bill, which passed, 68 to 32, with 14 Republicans voting in favor, also would provide a gateway to college for 650,000 young people, known as "dreamers," who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Under the bill, they would be eligible to receive federal student aid and to petition for citizenship five years after graduating from high school and completing some college or military service.
Although the bill, S 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, is viewed as unlikely to pass in the House of Representatives, it is widely considered a win for higher education.
Foreigners who earned Ph.D.'s at American universities would be eligible for green cards, while foreign students who completed master's degrees or Ph.D.'s in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (the STEM fields) could petition for a card.
"The real game changer in the bill for universities is in the green-card section, where advanced-degree graduates for STEM fields have green cards stapled to their diplomas," said Craig Lindwarm, assistant director for international issues and Congressional and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.
Through an amendment passed on the Senate floor, the bill would also keep colleges exempt from the national cap on H-1B visas, allowing them to temporarily employ researchers who are not citizens. It also would cut and limit student-visa fees.
In a letter on Wednesday urging the Senate to pass the bill, the heads of 14 higher-education associations heralded the legislation's benefits for "dreamer" students, writing that it would serve "our long-term economic growth by providing these young people a way out of the shadows and into our work force."
Steven M. Bloom, director of federal relations at the American Council on Education, lauded the bipartisan nature of the bill—which was crafted by four Republicans and four Democrats, known as the Gang of Eight—and said major research universities and community colleges especially had reasons to applaud.
"To tell you the truth, there was never huge things we were really concerned about, whether it was H-1B or green cards or Dream Act. These weren't incredibly difficult things to push across the finish line," Mr. Bloom said.
Higher-education lobbyists drew support from businesses in Silicon Valley as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which pushed to expand citizenship eligibility for high-skilled workers.
Though the House is expected to draft its own bill instead of taking up the Senate's, Mr. Bloom said the higher-education provisions were mostly uncontroversial in that chamber as well. The Senate bill also would strengthen border security and provide a 13-year pathway to citizenship for most immigrants in the United States illegally. Republicans in the House have resisted the latter provision.