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   october 2012


STEM Visa Bill Defeated in House

By Russ Harrison

Legislation to create 55,000 new STEM visas was defeated in Congress on 20 September, despite receiving strong bipartisan support.  While disappointing, the vote does not necessarily preclude further action on a STEM bill later this year.

The STEM Jobs Act of 2012 (H.R. 6429) would have transferred 55,000 green cards from the Diversity Visa program to a new  employment-based (EB) visa program.  These new visas would be available  for use by international students, who earned a Masters or Ph.D. in a STEM field from a research university within the United States. 

The bill would have allowed most, if not all, international STEM graduate students to move directly from their student visa to a green card without first having to use an H-1B visa.  In doing so, it would have protected American jobs and wages, while permitting the new immigrants to start their own companies and change jobs as easily as  Americans.

H.R. 6429 was introduced on 18 September by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chair of the House Judiciary Committee.  The bill had 67 cosponsors, all but one of whom were Republicans.

Rep. Smith had been negotiating with Senate Democrats  over  proposed amendments  to the STEM bill that would have helped immigrants using the family-visa system.  When those negotiations broke down, Rep. Smith decided to introduce his own bill that just included the Diversity-for-STEM visa swap.

This swap is key to any high-skill visa reform package.  Republicans in Congress refuse to raise the total number of immigration visas available each year.  Democrats refuse to decrease it.  A compromise needed to be found that moved visas around within the system, without changing the  total number of visas.

The Diversity Visa Program, or visa lottery, was created in the 1990s to promote immigration from countries that have not, traditionally, sent many immigrants to the United States, especially from countries in Eastern Europe and Africa.  It has succeeded to the point that there  are  now significant numbers of immigrants coming from both regions through the family-based system. 

The Diversity program awards visas randomly to any applicant with at least a high-school diploma.  Critics complain that there is no way to ensure that visa winners  will be able to find a job, integrate into American society or even speak English.  National security concerns have also been raised because there is no effective way to verify the identity and criminal history of visa winners from many countries.

STEM immigrants, on the other hand, will have to have an advanced degree in a  high-demand  field.  Since they will have had to earn that degree  from an American research university, their English skills will be strong, and they will be  able  to move seamlessly into the American middle class and  immediately begin contributing to the American economy.

It is important to note that the STEM Jobs Act of 2012 would not have increased high-skill immigration very much.  It would have encouraged some international students to stay after graduating, most of whom would have stayed anyway.  They just would have used an H-1B visa instead of a green card to do it. 

Even though  H.R. 6429  garnered a majority of those present and voting  in the House of Representatives,  it still did not pass, because the bill was considered  under a special procedure called Suspension.  This procedure allows bills to be voted on quickly, but requires a two-thirds majority to pass.  The final vote on H.R. 6429 was 257 (227 Republicans and 30 Democrats) in favor to 158 ( 5 Republicans and 153 Democrats) opposed.  A complete breakdown of the vote, plus the bill text, can be found here: http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2012/roll590.xml

While this result was disappointing, it was not surprising.  Passage became unlikely (although not impossible) as soon as negotiations between Republicans and Democrats broke down. 

This does not signal an end to efforts to pass a STEM Visa bill in 2012.  Even before the vote, Congressional leaders announced that they intended to keep negotiating on a compromise. The House vote confirms that a STEM Visa bill, built around a visa swap with the Diversity visa program, can pass the House of Representatives.  Senate leaders have already expressed support for the bill.  If a compromise can be reached between House and Senate leaders, it is possible that a STEM visa bill could be enacted  during the Lame Duck legislative session after the November elections.


Comments on this story may be emailed directly to Today's Engineer or submitted through our online form.


Russell T. Harrison is IEEE-USA’s Senior Legislative Representative for Grassroots Affairs.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.


Copyright © 2012 IEEE

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