House rejects bill to boost foreign STEM students in US, for now
After the election, a lame-duck Congress is likely to revisit a bill to boost the number of visas for foreign students seeking advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) in the US.
Behind a seemingly run-of-the-mill partisan defeat of a House bill addressing a thorny issue of immigration policy on Thursday lies the glimmer of bipartisan compromise.Skip to next paragraph
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The specific issue Thursday was a bump in the number of US visas for foreign students seeking advanced degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) at top American universities. The STEM Jobs Act, introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, offered a tradeoff: 55,000 additional visas for the STEM students in return for the elimination of 55,000 annual visas offered by the visa lottery (or diversity visa) program. The latter, dating from the early 1990s, brings immigrants to the US from countries underrepresented through other immigration programs.
The bill's aim was no net increase to immigration levels, but a potential boost to the US brain trust and the high-tech industry seeking STEM skills in the workforce.
In the end, 30 Democrats voted with all but five Republicans in favor of the bill, bringing the "yeas" to 257. But because Republicans brought the bill to the floor under a special consideration that suspends usual House rules, the measure needed approval of two-thirds of the members present, or 274 votes, to pass. Democratic aides say Republicans pursued that path to win political points with the high-tech industry lobby, which is eager for the measure to pass, and to paint Democrats as out of touch with the needs of a modern economy.
Publicly, at least, Democrats cited the zero-sum provision on immigration levels as a key sticking point. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) of California introduced a competing measure that would have offered the STEM visas without eliminating the visa lottery and that would expire after two years.
“Supporters of legal immigration would not have killed one immigration program to benefit another,” Representative Lofgren said on the House floor. “Nor would they agree to a Grover Norquist-style ‘no new immigration’ pledge that will continue to strangle our immigration system for years to come," she added, in a reference to the 'no tax increases' proponent.
Republicans took their shots, as well.
“Unfortunately, Democrats today voted to send the best and brightest foreign graduates back home to work for our global competitors,” Representative Smith said in a statement after the vote. “Their vote against this bill is a vote against economic growth and job creation.”
The public acrimony belies the fact that the two sides came close to a deal. Cross-chamber talks between Smith and Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, an advocate of the visa lottery, produced a general accord over the swap of STEM visas for the diversity lottery. Talks broke down, according to a Senate Democratic aide, over Democrats' requests for a handful of other fixes to the immigration system that could broadly be described as keeping immigrant families united during the naturalization process.