Parties lock horns over legislation to boost high-skilled immigration

The fight over high-skilled immigration legislation is coming to a head again next week after Republicans and Democrats failed to reach an agreement on a bill by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

Smith plans to introduce a bill early next week that would eliminate the diversity green card program and reallocate up to 55,000 green cards a year to foreign-born graduates with doctorates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines from U.S. universities. Any remaining visas would be available to graduates with master's degrees.  

The two parties see eye to eye on most aspects of Smith's bill, but the elimination of the diversity visa program is drawing fire from House Democrats. The House is set to vote on Smith's measure next week.

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Smith and other Republicans have been critical of the diversity visa program, arguing that its random selection process is plagued by fraud and could open the door for terrorists to enter the country. 

The program makes 55,000 visas available to people who have met certain eligibility requirements and come from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. The visas are allocated by random selection.

Smith had reached out to Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), the chair of the immigration task force for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, in recent days to discuss working out a compromise that would reallocate some of the visas from the eliminated diversity program to other visa categories, such as the family-based visa program. But the two lawmakers were unable to reach a deal.

Gutierrez said he wants to increase the number of STEM visas available to highly educated graduates, but not in a way that would damage other legal immigration programs.

"The President has made this a priority and I am prepared to support a clean STEM increase because it will help our economy and create jobs," Gutierrez said in a statement. "Republicans are only willing to increase legal immigration for immigrants they want by eliminating legal immigration for immigrants they don't want." 

In a hurried political move, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) introduced a bill before the House broke for the weekend that is similar to Smith's and proposes to add the same number of visas as his measure. Lofgren's version includes a few changes, but notably keeps the diversity visa program in place. 

Lofgren, whose district is home to eBay and PayPal, has long been an advocate for high-skilled immigration reform. 

The bill, named the Attracting the Best and Brightest Act (ABBA), has 11 Democratic co-sponsors. The bill's supporters include several members from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including its chair Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Reps. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas), Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), and Gutierrez. 

Smith had reached out to some House Democrats in recent days to gain support for his proposal, but said he planned to move forward with his bill by Friday, giving members little time to negotiate, according to a Democratic staffer. That prompted Democrats to introduce Lofgren's measure as a sign of Democrats' support for increasing STEM visas, the staffer said.

By fast-tracking Smith's bill to the floor, House Republicans are putting Democrats in an uncomfortable position.  Voting against a high-skilled immigration bill would be a tough move for House Democrats, who are generally supportive of immigration reform measures and receive fundraising dollars from major tech companies that advocate for STEM bills. 

Congress has long grappled with the issue of how to boost the pool of visas available for foreign-born graduates with STEM degrees from U.S. universities. Although high-skilled immigration bills have attracted bipartisan support throughout the years, they don't see much action because they typically get caught up in the wider immigration reform debate.

The issue is a cornerstone policy priority for tech giants such as Microsoft and Intel, who argue that they struggle to fill positions for technical jobs because most applicants don't have the requisite skills for these positions. Tech companies also argue that they want to keep this talent in the U.S. rather than lose it to competitors abroad.

Smith made the same case when he released a draft of his bill on Friday. 

“In a global economy, we cannot afford to educate these foreign graduates in the U.S. and then send them back home to work for our competitors," he said. "For America to be to the world’s economic leader, we must have access to the world’s best talent."

Smith's measure has received a vote of support from one tech trade association, the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), which counts Google and Intel as members.

"There's been so many steps sideways on immigration reform specific to STEM visas, that if [Smith] does move forward and drop a bill, it's a bill we will support," said Dean Garfield, chief executive officer of ITI.

When asked about Lofgren's measure, Garfield said that it's encouraging to see both parties recognize the importance of this issue but noted that "Republicans control the House and that's the bill that's going to be moving, and that's the bill we're going to support." 

He later added that "having competing bills on this issue adds a layer of complexity that shouldn't exist given the shared goal among the parties."


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