Vote on Divisive Immigration Bill Brings Flicker of Bipartisanship

Going for the green. Representative Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) joined with Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a bill that would give "green cards" to foreign students who earn advanced science and engineering degree

Immigration reform is a highly partisan issue on Capitol Hill. But Representative Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) says that siding with the Republican majority last Friday to pass the STEM Jobs Act of 2012 (HR 6429) wasn't a tough vote.

Lipinski is part of a group of moderate Democrats who believe Congress should do whatever it takes to make it easier for foreign scientists and engineers to stay in the United States after earning advanced degrees from U.S. universities. They are bucking their president and their party, who say that Republicans are demanding too high a price to retain such talented immigrants.

The STEM visa bill, authored by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the next chair of the House science committee, would put as many as 55,000 foreign-born, U.S.-trained graduates each year on a path toward permanent residency by making them eligible for green cards. The legislation would keep level the total number of immigrants allowed into the United States, however, by eliminating a program that uses a lottery to admit 50,000 immigrants from around the world who lack any special skills.

That trade-off is a sticking point for most Democrats, only 26 of whom supported the bill when it was approved by a margin of 245 to 139 in the House. (Only five Republicans voted no.) They insist that immigration reform shouldn't be a zero-sum game, and that graduates in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields shouldn't get special treatment.

"It flies in the face of our diverse American electorate to precondition STEM visas on the elimination of Diversity Visa immigrants, 50% of whom come from the continent of Africa," argued Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), during the floor debate. "Like STEM graduates, they have much to contribute to the United States."

In a statement opposing the bill before the House vote, the White House described it as one of several "narrowly tailored proposals that do not meet the president's long-term objectives with respect to comprehensive immigration reform." Democrats also say that the bill effectively reduces immigration, noting that only 29,000 students earning advanced degrees this year would be eligible for the program and that unused visas are not transferable to other categories.

But Democrats who support the Smith bill say that argument is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. "Yes, this bill is narrow, but it serves an important purpose," says Lipinski, a former political science professor and House staffer who last month was reelected to his fifth term representing a suburban Chicago district. "And we don't need to wait for comprehensive immigration reform to do this."

Lipinski also says he's just being pragmatic. Democratic-sponsored bills in both the House and the Senate would raise the overall number of green cards to accommodate STEM graduates and preserve the lottery system. But the House measure, sponsored by Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), has little chance of coming to a vote in the Republican-controlled House.

"The Republicans in the House have made it clear that [eliminating the diversity lottery] is what they want to do," says Lipinski. "And my choice is to say, if that's the way we have to do it, I will support that."