WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration announced on Wednesday its opposition to the latest House Republican effort on immigration: a bill that would expand visas to certain holders of advanced degrees by eliminating another visa program entirely.
The STEM Jobs Act, proposed by House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), is focused on the relatively uncontroversial idea that more highly-skilled immigrants should be allowed to come to, or stay in, the U.S. It would add 55,000 visas for masters and doctoral degree holders in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
At the same time, though, it would eliminate all 55,000 diversity visas -- often called the green card lottery -- that go toward would-be immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S.
It's also a narrow bill at a time when President Barack Obama and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are working toward broad immigration reform, which led the White House to oppose it.
"[T]he Administration strongly supports legislation to attract and retain foreign students who graduate with advanced STEM degrees ... However, the Administration does not support narrowly tailored proposals that do not meet the President's long-term objectives with respect to comprehensive immigration reform," the administration said Wednesday in its statement of policy.
Democrats are outraged by the Republican-led STEM bill, despite a few changes added to appeal to them. One is a provision that allows some spouses and children of legal permanent residents to come to the country while waiting for visa approval, which would keep families together. However, the bill would not give those individuals work authorization and would still include a wait, and Democrats argue the benefit does not outweigh the overall problems with the bill.
Diversity visas have long been a target of Republicans, although a relatively small number are distributed and a huge backlog already exists. Rep Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), also speaking in opposition to the bill, told the Rules Committee that it seemed insulting to eliminate all diversity visas.
"I take great offense, in a way of being gentle about it, about the attitude toward diversity visas," she said. "The idea of diversity visas is something of America's generosity and the desire of people to come here."
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) circulated a letter to her colleagues on Wednesday asking them to vote against the legislation. At a Rules Committee meeting later in the day, she said she is concerned about the argument that some visas should be eliminated to make way for others, particularly because unused visas from the STEM bill would simply disappear rather than being reallocated elsewhere.
"I think this bill is premised on a dangerous thought, which is that immigration is a zero-sum game," she said at the meeting.
Smith, who authored the bill, said in a statement after the White House's announcement that he was "disappointed" in the decision to oppose his legislation.
"This important bill will help us create jobs, increase our competitiveness, spur our innovation, and keep families together ... The President needs to join with us to get this small piece of immigration reform done now," he said. "The sooner we start to keep these talented foreign graduates, the sooner they can bolster U.S. competitiveness and help create jobs for America’s unemployed.”
Read the full administration statement:
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.
The Administration is deeply committed to building a 21st-century immigration system that meets the Nation's economic and security needs through common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform. As a part of immigration reform, the Administration strongly supports legislation to attract and retain foreign students who graduate with advanced STEM degrees, to establish a start-up visa for foreign-born entrepreneurs to start businesses and create jobs, and to reform the employment-based immigration system to better meet the needs of the U.S. economy. However, the Administration does not support narrowly tailored proposals that do not meet the President's long-term objectives with respect to comprehensive immigration reform.
The Administration is encouraged that the Congress appears to be ready to begin serious debate on the need to fix our broken immigration system and looks forward to working with both Democrats and Republicans to enact a common-sense approach that includes reforms to the legal immigration system. Such an approach must provide for attracting and retaining highly skilled immigrants and uniting Americans with their family members more quickly, as well as other important priorities such as establishing a pathway for undocumented individuals to earn their citizenship, holding employers accountable for breaking the law, and continuing efforts to strengthen the Nation's robust enforcement system.