House passes GOP visa reform bill over Dem objections

The House on Friday approved legislation aimed at providing more visas to foreign nationals with advanced degrees from U.S. universities. 

Members approved the STEM Jobs Act by a 245-139 vote. While most Democrats opposed the bill, 27 of them joined Republicans in support of the measure, just a little less than the 30 Democrats who voted for it earlier this year.

The bill creates a new category of visas for foreign students with science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) degrees. Republicans said the bill would reorient the visa program toward people who can stay in the United States and help create jobs.

"Our commitment to foreign STEM graduates is a commitment to American job creation," Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said.

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"For each person we welcome to America with one of these high degrees, we create jobs, net jobs," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). "We create opportunity for expansion of the kinds of businesses that in fact Americans are prepared to work in, but often we do not have enough engineers, scientists or math professionals."

House passage sends the bill to the Senate, which is unlikely to consider it at all given broad Democratic opposition. In either case, the White House has already said it opposes the bill and would rather work on broader immigration reform that covers other issues, including the creation of a pathway toward citizenship for illegal immigrants that have been in the country for years.

Democrats used debate time Thursday and Friday to argue that while they support a STEM visa program, they do not want one at the cost of eliminating the Diversity Visa program, as the STEM Jobs Act would do. The Diversity Visa program gives countries with low rates of emigration to the United States access to 55,000 visas, and Democrats said many of those visas are being used by African countries.

"The elimination of the diversity visa program will drastically reduce immigration from African nations because immigrants from Africa normally comprise half the Diversity Visa program's annual beneficiaries," Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said.

Democrats added further that the bill would reduce visa availability overall, in part because fewer education-related visas are expected. "This is a naked attempt to satisfy anti-immigrant groups that have long lobbied for reduced levels of legal immigration," Conyers said.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) took the argument a step further by charging that the bill is outright "racist" in its intent because it would necessarily shut down visas for people in African countries.

"That is racist, if not in its intent, then certainly in its effect," Johnson said.

Johnson also accused Republicans of failing to heed the lesson of the November election, which many agree revealed a lack of support for immigrants for Republicans.

"Republicans have just received a historically low votes from minorities in the past election, yet they want to create an immigration system that gives visas with one hand while taking visas away from minorities with the other," he added. "It is a Trojan horse, and the ugly head of racism will rear its ugly head if this Trojan horse, H.R. 6429, becomes law."

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) echoed that point as he closed out debate.

"It is almost as though November 6th came and went and my friends on the other side of the aisle just never listened to the verdict of the people, he said. "And what they said to us was, stop picking winners and losers. Stop dividing and pitting one American against another."

Johnson's remarks in particular drew a sharp rebuke from Issa, who said that 12,000 African citizens and 1,500 Nigerians now studying in the U.S. could still receive the new STEM visas. He said he was "personally insulted" that anyone would charge Republicans with racism, and suggested that Johnson visit more graduation ceremonies to see that a diverse group of people are receiving these degrees.

Debate on this issue continued, as Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said that, for example, not all the 1,500 Nigerian students would be graduating all at once, and that 2,000 Nigerians received visas last year under the diversity program.

But Issa deflected that criticism as an attempt to measure specific outcomes rather than focusing on the need to keep talented students in the country.

"There we go again, looking at the numbers rather than the merit," he said.

Issa added that focusing on immigrants who can help create jobs will help create more work for African-Americans, who are suffering a higher-than-average unemployment rate.

"That's the diversity we need to work on. The diversity of unemployment needs to be turned around; that's what the STEM bill is about," he said.

In September, the House tried to pass the bill under a suspension of House rules, which requires a two-thirds majority vote. That attempt failed given opposition from Democrats, which is why House Republicans brought it up again this week under regular order.