Washington, D.C. – In the first post-election effort to reform U.S. immigration policy, the House on Friday approved a Republican-sponsored measure, STEM Jobs Act, by a margin of 245 to 139.
The vote fell primarily along party lines, and followed an unsuccessful, last-minute move by Democrats to push through another version of the STEM visa bill that would keep the diversity lottery, which the Republican bill eliminates. Republicans cast 218 votes in favor of their STEM bill, but only 27 Democrats did so. Democrats cast 134 votes against it, with only five Republicans voting “No.”
The bill eliminates the diversity visa program and reallocates up to 55,000 new green cards – the document that establishes legal permanent U.S. residency, for foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math fields.
In a sort of concession to Democrats, Republicans added a provision to the bill that allows spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents to come to the U.S. after waiting one year in their native homeland for their green card application to be processed. But Democrats were not persuaded, with many of them saying the family concession was not enough to compensate for the elimination of lottery visa, which they argued should not have been dropped.
The sponsor of the bill, Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, lauded the bill’s passage.
“Many of the world’s top students come to the U.S. to obtain advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects,” he said in a statement. “We could boost economic growth and spur job creation by allowing American employers to more easily hire some of the most qualified foreign graduates of U.S. universities. These students have the ability to start a company that creates jobs or come up with an invention that could jump-start a whole new industry.”
He also stressed the family component.
“The bill puts families first, allowing the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents to come to the U.S. after waiting one year for their green cards,” Smith said. “The current green card waiting list is over two years and it has been much longer in the past. This provision will help keep families together rather than leave them miles apart while waiting to legally come to the U.S.”
Democrats , who have expressed their objection to the measure in the last few days, continued their criticism of the bill Friday.
“It is so disappointing [that] the majority decided to undermine an area of bipartisan agreement on STEM visas by loading up the measure with provisions that are a slap in the face to the core values of the United States,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and one of the Congress’s most vocal proponents for immigration reform policy that would provide undocumented immigrants a path to legalization.
“If you support this bill, you are saying that one group of immigrants is better than another and one type of educated, degree-holding person and their work is more important than anothers,” Gutierrez said. “In order to give visas to those with PhD's and Masters' Degrees, Republicans make two demands. First, we take away visas and the only means of legal immigration (most likely) from 50,000 people who may not have PhD's or Master's Degrees. Talk about picking winners and losers. My dad, if he had been an immigrant from Ireland or Nigeria or Taiwan would have been told ‘Nope.’ America is not for you. It is like when we used to have signs saying ‘Help wanted, Irish need not apply.’
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington D.C.-based group that favors more lenient immigration policies, voiced mixed feelings.
“We are glad to see that both parties recognize the importance of immigrants and immigration to our country, but we need a more comprehensive approach that also addresses the 11 million undocumented residents currently here,” he said in a statement. “Our economy needs the skilled immigrant farmworker as well as the skilled engineer. Both parties must recognize following the election that they need to appeal to a more diverse electorate — and this bill would eliminate a legal-immigration program that promotes diversity.”
About half of the diversity visas go to Africa nations. Democrats said this "zero sum game" on the number of visas granted was unacceptable.
"It pains me greatly that I cannot support this bill," said Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, whose northern California district includes many high-tech companies that for years have pushed for STEM visas so that they can hire the highly trained foreign scientists and engineers who now are forced to leave the country and find jobs with U.S. competitors.
She said the bill would eventually result in fewer visas issued because far fewer than 50,000 degrees are given every year to foreigners in eligible STEM fields, and the bill does not allow unused visas to be transferred to other programs.
The House voted on a similar STEM Act in September, but it fell short under a procedure requiring a two-thirds majority. It is being revived under rules needing only a simple majority. Republicans are scrambling to show the Hispanic community, which largely deserted them in the recent election, that the GOP is committed to fixing the immigration system.
Earlier this week, two Republican senators introduced their version of the DREAM Act. Their bill would allow young people brought into the country as children without authorization to stay without fear of being deported, an initiative previously opposed by most Republicans.
The family reunification provision would benefit Latinos.
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 says those in the country illegally are not eligible, and family members may not work while waiting for their green cards, a point of criticism for Democrats and others opposed to the bill.
Democrats say they support increasing STEM visas, but have voiced sharp criticism of the Republican approach.
The STEM Act visas would be in addition to about 140,000 employment-based visas for those ranging from lower-skilled workers to college graduates and people in the arts, education and athletics.
The Diversity Visa Lottery Program, created in 1990 partly to increase visas for Ireland, has shifted over the years to focus on former Soviet states and now Africa. In 2010, almost 25,000 visas went to Africa; 9,000 to Asia and 16,000 to Europe. Applicants must have at least a high school education.
Critics say the visa lottery program has outlived its purpose because Africans and East Europeans are already benefiting from family unification and skilled employment visas, and the lottery program is subject to fraud and infiltration by terrorists. Lofgren said it was "preposterous" that terrorists would try to get into a country under a program that picks 55,000 people at random out of more than 14 million applicants.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente