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.