FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The presidents of Kentucky's public universities have signed a letter urging the state's U.S. senators to help overhaul the immigration system.
The letter, dated Tuesday and addressed to Republicans Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, said American universities educate some of the world's top international students only to see some of them leave under current immigration policies and work for competing companies abroad.
"Kentucky cannot afford to wait to fix our immigration system," the letter stated. "As we send away highly skilled workers trained at Kentucky and other American universities, competing international economies are welcoming these scientists and engineers."
The letter calls for a bipartisan solution to ensure these graduates have a clear path to a green card.
Current U.S. immigration policy allows for 140,000 employment-based admissions to the U.S., which include workers' spouses and children, according to a November report from the Congressional Research Service. In 2009, there were 149,000 full-time graduate students in science, engineering, and health fields who were foreign students, CRS reported.
Republicans in the U.S. House tried to address the issue last year, passing the "STEM Jobs Act." But Senate Democrats blocked the bill. They said it would have taken away visas from other workers and said more sweeping immigration reform was needed.
U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced a new bill in January to increase the number of visas awarded to highly skilled workers. A Democratic co-sponsor, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, said she would push for the legislation to be part of broader immigration reform package, The New York Times reported.
Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky, cited his support for last year's failed Republican visa bill in a statement to the Associated Press.
"I remain in support of immigration reform that both secures our border and modernizes our visa system," he stated. "Under my plan the U.S. would begin with prioritizing visas for immigrants with advanced degrees and an immediate expansion of the work visa program. These reforms would happen immediately."
McConnell's office said he is reviewing the letter. In the past he has called for a bipartisan solution to reform U.S. immigration policy.
The Association of International Educators, a Washington, DC- based organization, reported that 765,000 foreign nationals attended universities in the U.S. during the 2011-12 academic year.
Broken down by state, California had the most international students at 103,000. Kentucky had 5,800, led by the University of Kentucky at Lexington with 1,640.
Associated Press writer Roger Alford contributed to this story.