House Advances Bill Expanding Science and Technology Visas

PHOTO: The House passed a bill Friday that would expand visas for immigrants who earn science and technology advanced degrees in the U.S. The bill faces an uncertain future under White House opposition.

The House on Friday voted to pass a bill that would allow foreign students who graduated from U.S. colleges and universities with degrees in science and technology to obtain green cards to become permanent legal residents.

The lower chamber voted 245-139 to pass the bill, titled the STEM Jobs Act (named after science, technology, engineering, and math fields). Twenty-seven Democrats joined Republicans in supporting it. Still, the legislation faces an uncertain future in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. And the White House said Thursday that it opposes the bill.

Democrats and Republicans have long agreed on the need to increase the number of work visas granted to immigrants with advanced degrees in science in technology fields. But for just as long, they have disagreed over how to make that happen.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas), would increase the amount of green cards available to STEM doctorate and masters degree holders by up to 55,000 per year.

But instead of increasing the overall amount of green cards available, they are taken away from the so-called "diversity lottery," which allocates permanent residency visas to countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. Republicans believe the diversity visa program is susceptible to fraud. But Democrats said that this provision essentially served as a poison pill that precluded them from supporting the bill.

"I want Republicans to know that Democrats support STEM visas. [But] we don't need to kill other legal immigration programs to create a STEM program," Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) said in a floor speech on Thursday. "Republicans are more interested in killing the Diversity Visa Program than in creating a program for STEM graduates."

Gutierrez also accused the GOP bill of treating immigration as a "zero-sum game," saying that it curtails legal immigration for those with lower levels of education who can still contribute to the U.S. economy.

The House previously voted on the measure in September, but it failed to pass under a procedural rule that required two-thirds support from the House to advance. Republicans had hoped that adding language that would have made it easier for green-card holders to remain together with their spouses and children in the United States would help. It didn't.

"Another issue facing the American immigrant workforce is that families are being separated by the backlog in our immigration system," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) wrote in an op-ed for the McClatchy-Tribune News Service. "This bill keeps families together by allowing husbands, wives and minor children of immigrant workers to wait with their families in the U.S. for their own green cards."

Republicans framed the bill as a jobs bill that also tackles part of the problem with the nation's immigration laws.

"The lessons taken from this month's election may vary, but the one thing we all agree on is that getting our economy moving again must be our top priority," Cantor wrote.

Leading Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), have said that they would focus on finding common ground on a comprehensive immigration bill next year following an election in which Hispanic voters who back reform abandoned Republicans.

But other Republicans said Friday that the divisive debate over the GOP's STEM bill could serve as a prelude to next year.

"If you can't take yes for an answer for a specific portion," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California), then it would be harder to find common ground on the harder issues at stake in the country's broken immigration system.

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