STEM Visa Bill Passes House; Stopped in Senate

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Publication date: 
6 December 2012

The House of Representatives passed HR 6429, the STEM  Jobs Act, on November 30, by a vote of 245-139.  HR 6429 would amend the Immigration and  Nationality Act to make up to 55,000 visas available to immigrants who have a  doctorate degree in a field of “computer  and information sciences and support services, engineering, mathematics and  statistics, and physical sciences” from a US university, agree to work five  years for a US employer, and who have taken all their doctoral coursework while  physically present in the US.  The bill  also applies to immigrants who hold a master’s degree in a field of science,  technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) from a US university, have taken  all their coursework while physically present in the US, and hold a  baccalaureate degree in a STEM field including the group of biological and  biomedical sciences.  In September a  series of STEM immigration bills were introduced, including HR 6429.  When  HR 6429 was brought to the House floor under an expedited legislative procedure,  it failed to pass.  This time, when HR  6429 came to the floor under normal House rules, it only required a simple  majority in order to pass. 

Of the Members who opposed the STEM Jobs Act, many did so  because it would eliminate the Diversity Visa Immigration program, which allocates  55,000 permanent residency visas by lottery.   HR 6429 does contain provisions which would allow family members to move  to the US after only one year of waiting for a green card, though they would  not be allowed to be employed until they receive a green card. 

The House of Representatives took all of the allotted time  of an hour and a half to debate this bill.   Discussions on the House floor demonstrated that while both parties  concur on the critical need for a STEM visa program, they disagreed on other  provisions of the bill.  Rep. Zoe Lofgren  (D-CA) encapsulated the argument of many of the Democratic Members who opposed  HR 6429, stating that “supporters of  legal immigration would not have to kill one immigration program to benefit  another,” referring to the elimination of the diversity immigration  program. 

Rep. Conyers adamantly  opposed the elimination of Diversity Visas stating that this element of HR 6429  is “the same poison pill that defeated  this bill on suspension is now being brought up again with the same poison pill  that pits immigrant and minority communities against one another and makes the  legislation, therefore, unworkable.”   He added that “Rather than simply  creating green cards for STEM graduates, the [Republican] majority insists that  we must pay for the new visas by completely eliminating Diversity Visas, a  longstanding legal immigration program. The elimination of the Diversity Visa  program will drastically reduce immigration from African nations because  immigrants from Africa normally comprise half the Diversity Visa program’s  annual beneficiaries.  Rather than  reaching out to minority and immigrant communities, the majority is for some  reason steamrolling through a bill that we otherwise agree with that cuts visas  for minorities and signals their continued support for a Grover Norquist-style ‘no  new green cards’ pledge that says you can’t create a green card for one person  without taking one away from someone else.”

Lofgren outlined her other concerns, explaining that the  bill “is actually designed to reduce  legal immigration. Taking 55,000 green cards from one category and putting them  in another may seem like an even trade, but it is not if the new category is  drafted to ensure that green cards go unused.   According to the National Science Foundation, American universities  currently graduate about 30,000 foreign students with degrees that would  qualify them for green cards under this bill. Assuming every single one of them  wanted to stay and could find an employer willing to offer them a permanent  job, which is certainly not the case, that would still leave 25,000 green cards  unused. This bill shamefully prevents those green cards from being used to help  other employment and family-based immigrants suffering in long backlogs.”

Lofgren also stated that this bill offers temporary visas  to STEM immigrants with “three  significant catches: the family members must first spend at least 1 year  overseas; unlike the original V visa, created by a Republican Congress in 2000,  the new visas prohibit family members already here from participating; and  unlike the original V visa, recipients are prohibited from working.”

Supporters of the STEM Jobs Act highlighted the need for  bringing skilled immigrants to the US.   Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) argued that “graduates  of American universities in science and in technology and engineering and math,  these STEM fields, are, frankly, behind many of the innovations, many of the  new businesses that are part of our present and future economic growth. If we  want to look at jobs, this is where those new patents, those new ideas will  come from that help create jobs. So we have talented students from around the  world that contribute to the graduate STEM programs of our universities. We are  trying to focus on a way to make sure our immigration system here puts our  interests first as a country.” Royce continued “We have the most generous level of legal  immigration in the world, but when you think about it, we select only 5 percent  of our immigrants based on the skills and education that they bring to America.  Clearly, what we're trying to do is to make certain that these foreign  graduates of U.S. universities in the STEM fields, because they're in such  great demand here, many of them of course end up on years-long green card  waiting lists and, as a result, many of them give up and go to work for one of  our global competitors. So our focus is: What can we do to accelerate this?” Rep Darrell Issa (R-CA) commented that “for each person we welcome to America with  one of these high degrees, we create jobs, net jobs. We create opportunity for  expansion of the kinds of businesses that, in fact, Americans are prepared to  work in, but often we do not have enough engineers, scientists, or math  professionals. This shortage, particularly at the masters and doctorate level,  is well documented.   This is not  something in which Republicans and Democrats are on different sides; this is  something we agree on. There is some controversy, as you might imagine; there  always is. Some would cling to a lottery that allows 55,000 immigrants to come  for no reason other than they asked and they got a lottery. Those 55,000 are,  in fact, an example of a great many of our immigrants. Only 5 percent of  immigration visas today are based on skills of education and other  capacities--only 5 percent….  But today  what we're dealing with is the ability to make a profound difference of 55,000  opportunity jobs.”

Senate Republicans asked on Wednesday that the bill be  brought to the Senate floor; Senate Democratic Members objected because the  bill abolishes the Diversity Visa Program, creating a potential rivalry between  immigrant groups.  Democratic Members as  well as the White House would like to encourage discussions for a comprehensive  approach to immigration.   Republicans take a different approach, preferring  to focus on targeted areas of agreement. 

The Office of Management and Budget issued a Statement  of Administration Policy expressing the Administration’s opinion on the  STEM Jobs Act.  “The Administration values reforms to attract the next generation of  highly-skilled immigrants, including legislation to attract and retain foreign  students who graduate with advanced science, technology, engineering, and  mathematics (STEM) degrees; however, the Administration opposes House passage  of H.R. 6429.  This legislation, if  enacted, would allocate immigrant visas for advanced graduates of a limited set  of STEM degree programs, would offer a limited number of visas for families  through the ‘V’ nonimmigrant visa program, and would eliminate the long-standing  Diversity Visa program that makes immigrant visas available to certain  individuals from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.”