By JIM ABRAMS, ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- A House vote to offer permanent residency to foreign students graduating with advanced degrees in science and math from U.S. colleges and universities is setting the stage for a bigger battle next year on how to redesign the nation's flawed immigration system.

House Republicans, with the help of a minority of Democrats, are expected to prevail Friday in passing the STEM Jobs Act, which would provide up to 55,000 green cards a year to those earning masters and doctoral degrees from U.S. schools in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

But the bill is unlikely to go anywhere this year in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and the Obama White House has come out against it, saying it "does not support narrowly tailored proposals that do not meet the president's long-term objectives with respect to comprehensive immigration reform."

A major point of contention is that the bill offsets the increase in visas for the highly educated by eliminating the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. This year the program made 50,000 visas available to people from countries with traditionally low rates of immigration. About half of those visas go to African nations.

The House voted on a similar STEM Act in September, but it fell short under a procedure requiring a two-thirds majority. It is being revived under rules needing only a simple majority. Republicans are scrambling to show the Hispanic community, which largely deserted them in the recent election, that the GOP is committed to fixing the immigration system.

Earlier this week, two Republican senators introduced their version of the DREAM Act. Their bill would allow young people brought into the country as children without authorization to stay without fear of being deported, an initiative previously opposed by most Republicans.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said the STEM Act, a top priority of the high-tech industry seeking to stop the "reverse brain drain" of highly skilled foreign graduates of U.S. universities leaving for jobs overseas, "will help us create jobs, increase our competitiveness and spur our innovation."


And in an attempt to pick up more votes, Smith added a provision that makes it easier for the spouses and children of residents to come to the United States while they wait for their own green card applications to be approved.

But while most Democrats support increasing STEM visas, there was sharp criticism of the Republican approach.

"This is a partisan bill that picks winners and losers in our immigration system," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a leader on immigration issues in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said of the elimination of the Diversity Visa Program.

"This bill is premised on the dangerous thought that immigration is a zero-sum game," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren. The Democrat, who represents high-tech companies in her northern California district and has long pushed for more STEM visas, said the Smith bill would eventually result in fewer visas issued because far fewer than 50,000 degrees are given every year to foreigners in eligible STEM fields, and the bill does not allow unused visas to be transferred to other programs.

The STEM Act visas would be in addition to about 140,000 employment-based visas for those ranging from lower-skilled workers to college graduates and people in the arts, education and athletics.

The Diversity Visa Lottery Program, created in 1990 partly to increase visas for Ireland, has shifted over the years to focus on former Soviet states and now Africa. In 2010, almost 25,000 visas went to Africa; 9,000 to Asia and 16,000 to Europe. Applicants must have at least a high school education.

Critics say the visa lottery program has outlived its purpose because Africans and East Europeans are already benefiting from family unification and skilled employment visas, and the lottery program is subject to fraud and infiltration by terrorists. Lofgren said it was "preposterous" that terrorists would try to get into a country under a program that picks 55,000 people at random out of more than 14 million applicants.

The provision on reuniting families allows the spouses and children of permanent residents to come to the United States to wait for their own green card applications to be processed one year after applying. The current wait for family members to receive residency is more than two years. The measure says those in the country illegally are not eligible, and family members may not work while waiting for their green cards.

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  • The Template: California Proposition 187 (1994)

    California's Proposition 187 was submitted to the voters with the full support of then Republican governor Pete Wilson. It essentially blamed undocumented immigrants for the poor performance of the state economy in the early 1990s. The law called for cutting off benefits to undocumented immigrants: prohibiting their access to health care, public education, and other social services in California. It also required state authorities to report anyone who they suspected was undocumented. <strong>Status:</strong> The law passed with the support of 55 percent of the voters in 1994 but declared unconstitutional 1997. The law was killed in 1999 when a new governor, Democrat Gray Davis, refused to appeal a judicial decision that struck down most of the law. Even though short-lived, the legislation paved the way for harsher immigration laws to come. On the other hand, the strong reaction from the Hispanic community and immigration advocates propelled a drive for naturalization of legal residents and created as many as one million new voters.

  • The Worst: Arizona SB 1070

    The Arizona Act made it a misdemeanor for an undocumented immigrant to be within the state lines of Arizona without legal documents allowing their presence in the U.S. This law has been widely criticized as xenophobic and for encouraging racial profiling. It requires state authorities to inquire about an individual's immigration status during an arrest when there is "reasonable suspicion" that the individual is undocumented. The law would allow police to detain anyone who they believe was in the country illegally. <strong>Status:</strong> The law was signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010. But it has generated a swirl of controversy and questions about its constitutionality. A federal judge issued a ruling that blocked what critics saw as some of the law's harshest provisions. House: 35-31 (4/12/2011)

  • Following Arizona's Footsteps: Georgia HB 87

    The controversy over Arizona's immigration law was followed by heated debate over Georgia's own law. HB 87 required government agencies and private companies to check the immigration status of applicants. This law also limited some government benefits to people who could prove their legal status. <strong>Status:</strong> Although a federal judge temporarily blocked parts of the law considered too extreme, it went into effect on July 1st. 2011. House: 113-56 Senate: 39-17

  • Verifying Authorized Workers: Pennsylvania HB 1502

    This bill, which was approved in 2010, bans contractors and subcontractors employ undocumented workers from having state construction contracts. The bill also protects employees who report construction sites that hire illegal workers. To ensure that contractors hire legal workers, the law requires employers to use the identification verification system E-verify, based on a compilation of legally issued Social Security numbers. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved on June 8th 2010. House: 188-6 (07/08/2010) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by DonkeyHotey</a>

  • A Spin Off of Arizona: Utah HB 497

    Many states tried to emulate Arizona's SB 1070 law. However, most state legislatures voted against the proposals. Utah's legislature managed to approve an immigration law based on a different argument. Taking into consideration the criticism of racial profiling in Arizona, Utah required ID cards for "guest workers" and their families. In order to get such a card workers must pay a fee and have clean records. The fees go up to $2,500 for immigrants who entered the country illegally and $1,000 for immigrants who entered the country legally but were not complying with federal immigration law, <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/06/nation/la-na-illegal-immigration-20110306" target="_hplink">according to the LA Times.</a> <strong>Status: </strong> Law went into effect on 03/15/2011 House: 59-15 (03/04/2011) Senate: 22-5 (03/04/2011)

  • The Most Comprehensive: Florida HB-1C

    Florida's immigration law prohibits any restrictions on the enforcement of federal immigration law. It makes it unlawful for undocumented immigrants within the state to apply for work or work as an independent contractor. It forbids employers from hiring immigrants if they are aware of their illegal status and requires work applicants to go through the E-verify system in order to check their Social Security number. <strong>Status: </strong>effective since October 1st, 2010

  • The Hot Seat: Alabama HB 56

    The new immigration law in Alabama is considered the toughest in the land, even harder than Arizona's SB 1070. It prohibits law enforcement officers from releasing an arrested person before his or her immigration status is determined. It does not allow undocumented immigrants to receive any state benefit, and prohibits them from enrolling in public colleges, applying for work or soliciting work in a public space. The law also prohibits landlords from renting property to undocumented immigrants, and employers from hiring them. It requires residents to prove they are citizens before they become eligible to vote. The law asked every school in the state to submit an annual report with the number of presumed undocumented students, but this part, along with others, were suspended by federal courts. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved June 2nd, 2011 House: 73-28 (04/05/2011) Senate: 23-11 (05/05/2011) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/longislandwins/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by longislandwins</a>