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STEM Visa Bill Passes House; Stopped in Senate

Aline D. McNaull
Number 142 - December 6, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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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.”

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics