In approving what is called the STEM Jobs Act on a 245-139 vote, Republicans who control the House were signaling Hispanic voters who abandoned them in the election that they're serious about fixing the flawed system.
The bill passed Friday would provide 55,000 permanent residency visas to foreign students with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But it drew fire from Democrats because it would kill a program that helps less-trained people from Africa and elsewhere gain entry to this country.
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Partisan divisions over the future of immigration reform were evident as the House took up legislation Friday saying foreign students graduating with advanced degrees in technology fields from U.S. colleges should be able to get green cards to work here.
The STEM Jobs Act - named for the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics was headed for passage in the Republican-led House, but it was unlikely to be taken up in the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Obama White House opposes it.
The main point of contention is that the bill would offset the 55,000 permanent residency visas to be offered to graduates of masters and doctorate programs in the STEM fields by eliminating the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which makes visas available to people from countries with traditionally low rates of immigration. About half of those 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.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said the STEM Act, a top priority of the high-tech industry seeking to stop the "reverse brain drain" of highly skilled foreign graduates of U.S. universities leaving for jobs overseas, "will help us create jobs, increase our competitiveness and spur our innovation."
And in an attempt to pick up more votes, Smith added a provision that makes it easier for the spouses and children of residents to come to the United States while they wait for their own green card applications to be approved.
But while most Democrats support increasing STEM visas, there was sharp criticism of the Republican approach.
"This is a partisan bill that picks winners and losers in our immigration system," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a leader on immigration issues in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said of the elimination of the Diversity Visa Program.
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.
The provision on reuniting families allows the spouses and children of permanent residents to come to the United States to wait for their own green card applications to be processed one year after applying. The current wait for family members to receive residency is more than two years. The measure says those in the country illegally are not eligible, and family members may not work while waiting for their green cards.