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.

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. 

Republicans balked at those additions, and then took their bill to the House floor without much further consultation. 

Even some Democrats who oppose the visa swap, such as Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, don’t see the lottery as a red line that can never be crossed.

“It’s not a sacred cow,” says Doug Rivlin, a spokesman for Representative Gutierrez. 

However, Democrats fundamentally disagree with Republicans about the direction that US immigration policy should be going, says Mr. Rivlin. 

“The bigger question is, is the problem with our immigration system that too much of it is legal or that not enough of it is legal? And our diagnosis is [that] not enough of it is legal. So if you want to increase STEM visas, increase STEM visas,” he said. “We can do that tomorrow, we can do that the day after the election, we can do that whenever.”

Democrats say the visa lottery provides hope for would-be immigrants to come to the US legally – and reflects the fundamental nature of the American character since the country’s founding. 

"We don't know where our next great innovators will come from, and we ought not close the doors on those who have been waiting patiently to have their number called in some far-off corner of the world,” said House minority whip Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland. “That lottery is not only their salvation, but also our benefit. It is part of what makes America great.”

Republicans argue that the US admits the maximum number of immigrants it should and cite problems with the diversity lottery. 
"The U.S. already has the most generous legal immigration system in the world – we admit more than one million legal immigrants each year," said a House judiciary aide in an e-mailed statement. "The diversity visa lottery is a magnet for fraud and a loophole for terrorists."
Still, the vote showed that the STEM Jobs Act could win House approval under the regular, majority-rules voting order, whereas the Democratic alternative faces an uncertain outcome in the House and almost certain defeat in the Senate. 

Though the bill failed, some hope that the months of negotiations were not in vain. 

“The major 1986 and 1990 immigration overhauls were not signed into law until November of those years. So we remain hopeful that bipartisan discussions on STEM green cards can start up again when Congress comes back in November for the lame-duck session,” says Randy Johnson, a senior vice president of labor, immigration, and employee benefits at the US Chamber of Commerce, which backed the bill. “It seems there is agreement that creating STEM green cards will help the US maintain its competitive advantage, so hopefully the two parties can figure out a way how to do that.”

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