Last week, the House of Representatives failed to garner enough votes to pass a measure that would have made it easier for foreign-born scientists and engineers educated at American universities to work in the United States. The bill, HR 6429, was rejected after bicameral negotiations between Republicans and Democrats broke down.

Competing bills have been introduced in Congress to increase the number of green cards for highly skilled immigrants graduating from U.S. universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). Despite bipartisan consensus on the need to retain STEM graduates, and strong backing from business and higher education, a year of private talks aimed at compromise between House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Democrats in the Senate and the House broke down. Chairman Smith then decided to move forward without a consensus proposal.

Chairman Smith’s bill would eliminate 55,000 visas currently given out by the diversity visa program—by which permanent visas are awarded via a lottery system to applicants from countries without a large immigrant population in the U.S—instead reserving them for foreign graduates of U.S. universities who have obtained a Masters degree or PhD. The bill would apply only to graduates in computer and information sciences and support services, engineering, mathematics and statistics, and physical sciences. Other STEM graduates would be ineligible, including those with degrees in biology.

Not increasing the net number of visas was a critical provision to gain support of conservative Republicans, but generated resistance from Democrats. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus joined in urging opposition to the bill. “I would like to improve the STEM visa program without doing damage to other parts of our legal immigration systems,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL). “Republicans are only willing to increase legal immigration for immigrants they want by eliminating legal immigration for immigrants they don’t want.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) introduced an alternative bill (HR 6412) that closely mirrored Smith’s except for the key provision that it would give 50,000 green cards to STEM graduates without abolishing the diversity visa program. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) proposed similar legislation that would retain the diversity visa program, as well as include additional immigration provisions important to Senate Democrats.

The House of Representatives rejected a motion to suspend the rules and pass Smith’s bill. Despite garnering 257 votes mostly from Republicans, the measure fell short of the required two-thirds required to pass the bill under the House rules used to bring the measure to the floor. Further proceedings on the motion and consideration of alternative bills have been postponed.


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