Represent!

Politics, government and public life for Southern California

House vote on GOP immigration bill would allow more foreign-born grads to stay in US

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There are precious few hours before Congress leaves town until after the election. They still have a funding resolution to pass to keep the government going, and they'll name a few post offices. But there's also an immigration bill likely to get a vote Thursday — one sponsored by Republicans.

The bill by Republican Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas would make it easier for graduate students from foreign countries to remain in the United States after getting a degree. There's a catch: their major must be from one of the so-called "STEM" areas — science, technology, engineering, or math.  

Smith is chair of the House Judiciary Committee. His bill is designed to prevent the brain drain of foreign-born, U.S.-educated scientists and engineers who return to their home country because of the difficulty in obtaining work visas. Up to 55,000 visas would be designated for such candidates.

The bill has about 50 GOP co-sponsors. Democrats, however, aren't thrilled about the measure.

Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of San Jose is the ranking member on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement. She's been working for years to increase the number of STEM visas. 

Lofgren opposes the Smith bill, accusing it of being "cynically" designed to "reduce legal immigration." Under currrent law, leftover visas in one category can be used by immigrants in oversubscribed categories. If the 55,000 STEM visas are not all awarded in a given year, the Smith bill would not allow the unissued visas to be transfered to other categories.

Smith's bill would create those visas by eliminating diversity visas. That program, created more than two decades ago, allows people from countries with few immigrants to participate in a lottery of up to 55,000 visas. Democratic Congresswoman Judy Chu of El Monte circulated a letter to her colleagues on behalf of the Tri-Caucus (Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American caucuses), opposing the Smith bill's raid of the diversity visa program.

Congressman Mike Honda of San Jose, also a member of the Tri-Caucus, co-signed Chu's letter, saying the Smith bill won't address the backlog problem of would-be immigrants waiting for visas. Last week, Congresswoman Lofgren introduced her own STEM bill, which does not eliminate the diversity visa program.

Lofgren adds that the Smith bill allows for-profit and on-line colleges to participate. She says this allows schools to "essentially sell visas to young foreigners." The Smith bill applies to accredited American schools at least a decade old that conduct a "high level" of research activity, as described by the Carnegie Foundation or National Science Foundation.

Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach says he'll vote for the STEM Jobs Act, even though his office says he has concerns about "non-citizen PhDs bidding down wages" for the jobs American grads are trying to land. He does approve of throwing out the diversity visa program, which he said has "failed."

The GOP-led House likely has the votes to pass the measure. On the Senate side, New York Democrat Charles Schumer, who heads the Senate Judiciary Immigration subcommittee, is expected to introduce his own STEM bill. Like Lofgren's bill, it's expected his bill would preserve the diversity visa program.

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