U.S. House Prepares to Vote on Visas for Foreign STEM Graduates

Entry point. A U.S. permanent residency card is a highly prized commodity.

Democrats and Republicans alike believe that foreign-born students earning advanced science and engineering degrees from U.S. universities should be able to remain in the country after graduation and apply their talents to help the economy. The issue is championed by university presidents, state and local officials, and corporate leaders. Both presidential candidates have also come out in favor of the idea, which is sometimes simplified to "stapling a green card to their diplomas."

But reforming U.S. immigration laws is never that simple. And this week politics is once again expected to trump responsible policymaking.

On Thursday or Friday the House of Representatives is expected to take up a bill, crafted by the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee, to help those graduates. But observers say the long-awaited legislation, introduced today and put on an extremely fast track for a vote, is likely to be defeated. If that happens, its demise will have more to do with election-year appeals by each party to its political base than to any fundamental disagreement in Congress over the need to improve the management of legal immigration.

The spotlighted bill, by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), would give up to 55,000 foreign-born graduates in most STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines a path to citizenship by creating a new category of so-called green cards. Doctoral recipients would be given preference over those earning master's degrees, and students in the biological sciences would NOT be eligible for a green card. The new slots would be created by eliminating an existing visa program—which issues what are known as "diversity" visas—that is based on a lottery rather than on any special qualifications. The swap would maintain the current number of green cards issued each year. That goal appeals to Republican voters who oppose any increase in the total number of legal immigrants to the United States.

In previous hearings held on related bills, Smith has expressed deep concerns about immigrants trying to "game" the system by obtaining degrees from inferior institutions in order to qualify for a visa. So his bill requires graduates to have attended a doctoral-granting university certified by the National Science Foundation as conducting "high" levels of research.

All but one of the provisions in Smith's bill are also part of legislation introduced Friday by the Democrat's leading voice on STEM immigration reform, Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). The difference is that Lofgren, ranking member of the committee's panel on immigration, would preserve the lottery program and add to the total number of visa slots. That approach is favored by Latino constituents and other traditionally Democratic-leaning voters. (Under Smith's bill, any visas not awarded by 2014 would disappear, thereby reducing the overall number issued.)

Lofgren's alternative to Smith's bill will not be taken up this week by the House, which is controlled by Republicans. But it does give Democrats something to rally behind, and a reason to vote against Smith's bill, which so far has only one Democratic co-sponsor. Smith needs bipartisan support to achieve the two-thirds majority required for passage. (That extra margin applies to bills brought to the floor without having gone through committee.)

The political posturing is a chronic problem for advocates of immigration reform, explains Darrell West of the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, who has written widely on the topic. Both sides want to retain foreign-born talent, he notes, "but when it comes to immigration reform, there are so many crosscurrents that every time you try to address one piece, you cause a problem in another area. And diversity visas are a clear divide between Republicans and Democrats."

That divide doesn't extend to students in the biosciences, however. Both the Lofgren and Smith bills would bar foreign students earning advanced biology degrees from eligibility for the new visas. U.S. citizens already face stiff competition for jobs in bioscience fields, according to a Republican staffer on the Judiciary Committee. "There is a very high unemployment rate in that sector already. It doesn't make sense to make it any harder for them," says the aide.

An aide to Lofgren says that the two sides spent the August recess trying to round up support among Democrats for a bill that would strike a compromise on the diversity visas and other issues affecting the families and relatives of those who would be eligible for the new visas. "But last week [the Republicans] came to us and said, 'We don't have time to talk anymore,' " the Lofgren aide says. "You need to decide by Friday, because we are moving ahead with our bill."

At that point, Lofgren folded elements of previous legislation into her new bill (H.R. 6412), dubbed the Attracting the Best and Brightest Act of 2012. The biosciences were not excluded in her previous bill, the aide noted, but that provision was attached to bring it closer in line with Smith's bill.

Most scientific organizations are staying neutral in this latest political battle. "We support the concept behind bills designed to provide green cards to advanced STEM degree graduates, but we have not endorsed a particular bill," says Barry Toiv of the Association of American Universities (AAU), whose 61 members represent an elite group of research universities. Toiv noted that AAU President Hunter Rawlings supports a letter from 165 university presidents, working under the auspices of the Partnership for a New American Economy, which last week urged Congress "to find a bipartisan solution that ensures our top international graduates have a clear path to a green card."

One exception is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Its political arm, IEEE-USA, is backing Smith's bill. "This is the best jobs bill that we have on the calendar, and we don't see a better choice," says Keith Grzelak, the group's vice president for government relations. "I can't say anything negative about [Lofgren], who's been a real leader on this issue. But we think that the swap [of the new category for the diversity program] is more likely to happen."

The Senate is not expected to take up the issue before Congress recesses at the end of the week for the November elections. But that hasn't prevented supporters of STEM visas from trying to share the limelight with their House colleagues. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) said today that he will introduce legislation tomorrow that parallels Lofgren's bill. And in May, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced legislation that conforms to Smith's bill in the House.

If the House approves Smith's bill, STEM visas could go on the congressional agenda for a lame duck session in November. If not, then the outcome of the election will determine whether, and when, the new Congress revisits the topic.