Latinos could be among the biggest beneficiaries of a provision of a Republican bill that allows spouses and minor children of legal immigrants to live in the United States while waiting for their green card application to be processed.
Latinos, specifically Mexicans, account for the largest group of legal permanent residents in the United States – numbering more than 3 million, according to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics.
The bill, called the STEM Jobs Act, is set to be debated and voted on in the House of Representatives by Friday. Its original focus when it was first introduced in September was to expand the number of green cards for international students who graduate with advanced degrees in science and technology from U.S. universities.
But the provision allowing spouses and children of green card holders (legal immigrants who are not naturalized U.S. citizens) to reunite here in this country before the completion of their residency application was not part of that original measure, which failed to pass over bi-partisan bickering over a part of the STEM Jobs Act that called for eliminating an annual immigration lottery.
There are some 80,000 of these family-based green cards allocated every year, but there are about 322,000 husbands, wives and children waiting in this category and on average people must wait more than two years to be reunited with their families.
Mexico has the most people on the waiting list, with more than 138,000 people, or 43 percent of all people on the list, according to the U.S. State Department. The Dominican Republic is next, with nearly 31,000, followed by Cuba, with 16,000.
The measure is viewed by political observers as unlikely to become law, chiefly because it is being presented during a lame-duck session, and Democrats complain that Republicans did not consult with them about it. If it should pass the House, which is controlled by Republicans, it is not likely to get far in the Senate, where Democrats hold a majority.
The STEM Act family section would allow family members to come to the United States one year after they apply for their green cards, but they wouldn't be able to work until they got the card.
Some immigration advocates say that while not ideal, the family provision would let relatives be with their U.S. loved ones while they await a resolution of their application. Family-based admissions to the United States is by far the top source of immigration.
“It will help 332,000 people immediately -- nearly half from Mexico -- and hundreds of thousands of people in the future,” said a veteran expert who did not want to be named because of his employment ties.
But many Democrats and immigration advocacy groups are expressing skepticism about the STEM Act, as well as another Republican bill, called the ACHIEVE Act, which was introduced in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday.
That measure, a dramatically more restrictive version of the DREAM Act, requires applicants to enter the country before age 14 and they must have lived in the United States for at least five years.
On Wednesday, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), which has no Republicans, plans to hold a press conference to unveil an immigration reform mission statement of sorts, and also -- very likely -- contrast their commitment to immigrants with that of their opponents.
The document is expected to affirm support of a STEM visa, while also calling for “common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform” that, among other things, provides a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants.
“If Republicans are really serious about immigration reform, why not have conversations before bringing a bill to the floor?” asked Douglas Rivlin, spokesman for Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who is among the most vocal proponents in Congress for comprehensive immigration reform. “We [Democrats] think there should be a STEM visa created, but there’s no reason why we need to take away legal immigration channels like the diversity lottery.”
The STEM Act would provide 55,000 visas for high-tech grads, replacing the 55,000 diversity lottery ones.
Rivlin called the STEM Act “mostly a political stunt” by Republicans aimed at blaming Democrats if the measure fails and telling Latinos – seen as a main factor in Obama’s victory on Nov. 6 – that the GOP tried to address immigration in a way that would benefit family reunification.
Rep. Lamar Smith, chief sponsor of the bill and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration, said that Republicans have reached across the aisle to Democrats regarding the STEM Act.
“For the last several months, I have worked with Democrats in both the House and Senate trying to reach a deal on STEM legislation,” said the Texas Republican. “Before the bill came under suspension, the bill’s introduction had been delayed for several weeks at the request of various Democratic members. But we cannot wait any longer.”
“American companies need these workers and our economy needs this legislation to help create jobs,” he said. “According to a recent poll, 76 percent of Americans support the goal of this bill. And over 100 national organizations, U.S. employers, and state and local organizations have endorsed the STEM Jobs Act. I am disappointed that some Democrats may vote against an important bill that will help us create jobs, increase our competitiveness, and spur our innovation.”
Smith said eliminating the diversity visa lottery “makes our immigration system smarter” because the program “invites fraud and is a threat to our national security.”
Eliseo Medina, international secretary-treasurer of the SEIU, said: “House conservatives are once again trying to ram through a special interest bill and claim they are working on the immigration issue. Conservatives forget that voters are on to them. They know what’s real reform and what’s fake, and they know when one group benefits at the expense of another.”
The United States is home to an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants, most of them Latinos. President Obama, criticized by many Latino and immigration advocacy groups for not doing enough to push an immigration reform bill in his first term, vowed to bring a measure to Congress in his second term.
Groups that favor strict immigration enforcement were not embracing the STEM Act, either.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, released a statement taking aim at both offering green cards to high-tech graduates and allowing relatives of green-card holders to live in the United States before their application process is completed.
“The newer version of the bill now adds a sweetener for Democrats,” it said, referring to the family provision.
“It accelerates immigration dramatically by circumventing wait-lists requiring petitioners to wait outside of the country to receive a green card before entering,” FAIR said. “Ultimately, this bill does little to benefit Americans – which should be the purpose of our immigration policy. Shifting green cards to one sector only benefits the immigrants and the universities and companies that wish to attract them."
"American students are facing a dismal job market and would be subject to even more competition for admissions and jobs in the STEM fields under this legislation," FAIR said. "STEM fields would also become less and less attractive and accessible to American students, turning the domestic skills shortage myth into a reality.”
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente