House vote to boost sci-tech visas lays bare political rifts on immigration

The House approved a bill Friday to redirect 55,000 available visas to foreign students studying science, engineering, and math in the US. Some Democrats backed the GOP bill, but the vote shows why immigration is such a thorny issue for Congress.

House passage of an immigration bill that swaps a lottery designed to diversity America’s immigrant population for visas targeted to students advanced in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) lays bare a yawning divide between Democrats and Republicans on the principles and process of immigration reform.

The Republican-backed measure, which passed Friday 245 to 139 (with 27 Democrats joining all but five Republicans in support), makes an immigration trade: 55,000 visas available through a State Department visa lottery, which go to people from nations underrepresented in the overall US immigrant population, will instead go to advanced graduates in STEM fields attending top American research universities. In addition, the bill permits, in some circumstances, noncitizen family members of naturalized US citizens to stay in the United States while awaiting their own permanent status.

The legislation has almost no hope of being considered in the Senate, given significant Democratic opposition.

Democrats and Republicans – and the high-tech companies who have lobbied vigorously for visas for employees they covet – agree that boosting the number of STEM visas is a worthy goal. Yet ahead of the vote, members of the two parties sparred on the House floor over their philosophical fractures on immigration policy.

Republicans see the STEM measure as an example of the best way forward on immigration reform: one step at a time to address pieces of the immigration puzzle.  

“This was the first step forward in terms of trying to address the need for modernization in our visa laws,” said majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia after the vote. “We have a system of lottery that, frankly, I think is properly replaced with a system that rewards those who want to come here to help create jobs.”

Republicans emphasized that it's worthwhile to remove visas from a program in which applicants have with no educational requirements and to give them to individuals of high value to American industry. Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California said on the House floor that Democrats were “looking at the numbers, rather than the merit” of potential immigrants.

Republicans complain that comprehensive reforms, such as those Democrats tout, have failed in the past and that incremental change is the best way forward.  

“What stopped [reform] from happening was the size of it, the scope of it. [Democrats] said, ‘We have to do everything,’ ” Representative Issa said later in an interview, reflecting on past efforts to reform immigration law. “Doing everything allowed somebody to not like some part of anything. What we’ve done here today and what we need to do ... we need to break up the elephant into bite-size pieces.”

Why is that a problem for Democrats? First, they are steamed that the first immigration vote since the election came with zero consultation with House liberals.

“The diversity issue is an important one for our country, but there are different ways to achieve the goal. They wouldn’t even discuss those other alternatives,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) of California, who has taken part in bipartisan immigration negotiations in the past, said in an interview. “You can’t come to an agreement if you refuse to have a discussion.”

But second, and more central, Democrats say that Republicans' unwillingness to raise legal immigration levels by even 5 percent (the increase of 55,000 STEM visas without the elimination of the diversity visas) represents an unworkable position going forward. With more than 10 million illegal immigrants in the US today, it's simply unfeasible to offset every new green card when the immigration system admits a few more than 1 million people per year, Democrats say.

Under such a system, they argue, it will take years to bring illegal immigrants into legal status, even before other changes such as adding STEM visas or making special provisions for agricultural workers.  

Republicans “have essentially signed a Grover Norquist-style pledge to [anti-immigration groups] that says ‘no new green cards,’ ” says one senior Democratic House staffer, referring to the no-tax-increases pledge signed by more than 90 percent of congressional Republicans.

Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho disputed this characterization. “I don’t think anybody today talked about a cap.... You just heard five people talk about immigration reform” at a post-vote press conference of Republican members, “and none of us talked about a cap.”

The US does not have an official cap, but through various avenues 1 million immigrants have obtained permanent resident status each year since 2005.

If Republicans are open to Democratic aims to let more legal immigrants into the US, taking up immigration reform bit by bit could crater the reform effort, liberals fear. A comprehensive bill would require compromises from both parties on border security and potential citizenship for illegal immigrants, for example. If those contentious issues were to be taken up separately, they would never advance, Democrats fear.

However, Democrats have themselves carved out one piece of the immigration reform pie: helping young illegal immigrants who've been raised much of their lives in the US. Democrats have pushed the DREAM Act, a stand-alone measure that would offer a path to citizenship to several million young undocumented immigrants who have obtained at least a high school education or are serving in the US military.

Leadership at the US Chamber of Commerce, which would like to see a full-throated immigration reform bill, has expressed doubts about the Republicans' preferred piecemeal approach. “I’m afraid if we do one or two” pieces of immigration reform, said Tom Donohue, CEO of the US Chamber of Commerce, in a talk with reporters Thursday morning, “then we’re liable to find it more difficult to do an overwhelming bill.”

Asked about particular issues that might gum up a big immigration deal, Mr. Donohue said: “You know what they are.” 

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