Immigration reform for foreign graduates who earn advanced degrees in science took one step closer to realization on Friday. The House of Representatives passed a slightly modified version of a bill the chamber had failed to pass earlier this fall. HR 6429 passed with bipartisan support 245 to 139.

The bill would take 55,000 visas currently awarded lottery-style by the diversity immigrant program and redirect them to foreign graduates who have earned advanced science degrees at U.S. universities, thereby eliminating the diversity program. Preference would be given to those holding a doctoral degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields, and remaining visas would go to Master’s degree-holders.

An earlier version of the GOP House bill was rejected in September. It failed to pass with the necessary two-thirds majority (290 votes), despite picking up 30 Democrats for a total of 257 votes. The Rules Committee, however, decided only a simple majority was necessary for Friday’s vote, a threshold easily met.

New language in the bill would make it easier for family members of visa holders to move to the U.S. while they wait for green cards of their own, and would cut their present waiting period of two years in half.

“This is the first step forward toward doing something concrete and delivering results on immigration reform,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). Republicans claim to be serious about pursuing immigration changes in the wake of an election in which nearly three-quarters of Hispanic voters preferred President Obama to candidate Mitt Romney. Differences may arise in approach, however, as Democrats support bigger changes as part of a comprehensive system overhaul, and Republicans would rather take a “step-by-step” approach endorsed by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH).

The bill’s prospects in the Senate are weak, at least during the limited-time of the lame duck session. Moreover, Senate Democrats have expressed reservations about the details of the bill and about the GOP’s piecemeal approach to immigration reform. A White House official offered a similar statement: “we support expansion of STEM visas in general as part of a broader immigration reform, but any legislation that moves should be part of a balanced approach to fixing the immigration system, and this proposal does not meet that standard.”

There is broad support by universities and businesses for retaining more U.S. trained STEM scientists.


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