House advances visa reform bill, sets up Friday vote

The House voted Thursday to advance a visa reform bill that Republicans say would help keep talented foreign students in the United States, but which Democrats say would needlessly eliminate another key visa program.

Members voted 243-170 in favor of a rule for H.R. 6429, the STEM Jobs Act. That bill would eliminate a visa program for countries with low rates of emigration to the United States, and hand those visas to foreign students with degrees in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM).

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Approval of the rule sets up 90 minutes of debate, which will happen on Friday just before the House is expected to approve the legislation.

In the fall, Republicans tried to pass the same bill under a suspension of the rules, but that attempt failed due to Democratic opposition. 

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chief author of the bill, expressed confidence that the measure would clear the House and said he was "disappointed with the White House" — alleging its opposition was purely political. 

"They've voiced no substantive opposition. They've just said they want to wait until next year and make it a part of a larger immigration bill. That simply means that for one year, two years, even indefinitely, we're going to have thousands of individuals with master's and PhDs who are not going to be allowed to stay in this country even though they're graduates from American universities," Smith told reporters. 

"The president's position is hurting the economy and hurting the country," he added. 

Smith had engaged in talks with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) this year to try work on compromise language so the bill could move in the Senate. When asked if he planned to start up talks again with Schumer on a compromise, Smith said the White House's opposition would "be hard to overcome."

Democrats said Thursday they still oppose the bill because it would eliminate the current diversity visa program to make room for a new STEM visa program.

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) said there is no need to choose between the two programs. He said he supports a STEM program, but said the diversity visa program helps ensure the U.S. is allowing a full spectrum of immigrants into the United States.

"Rather than create a STEM visa program … it asks the question of this body, would we rather have a diversity visa concept, or would we rather have a STEM visa concept?" Polis said.

Polis also argued that the bill would create more STEM visas than are needed, which increases the risk of illegal immigration as people who might be shut off from a diversity visa might try to enter the country anyway.

"So I have very sincere concerns that rather than addressing the issue of illegal immigration, this bill … could actually increase illegal immigration by reducing legal immigration," he said.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) had an even sharper criticism — that Republicans are looking to allow immigrants into the country only if they have advanced degrees, and keep out others who might be less desirable.

"In other words, we want to pick immigrants we like, and then eliminate those we don't like, as though some are better than others," he said.

As they did in September, Republicans defended the bill as one that would help keep much-needed talent, which has a capacity to contribute to job creation, in the country. Rep. Richard Nugent (R-Fla.) said that today, foreign students are often forced to return home even though they may want to stay.

"We're training hundreds of thousands of highly skilled engineers, technicians and scientists at American universities, and then sending them back home to compete against us in other countries," Nugent said. "They're moving not to other countries because they want to leave the United States, they're moving because the immigration forces them out."

Nugent added that ending the diversity visa program is also a good goal, given reports that the lottery program is "rife with fraud and abuse."

In September, 30 Democrats joined Republicans in the unsuccessful attempt to pass the bill under suspension, and many Democrats were expected to support the bill on Friday. However, only 10 Democrats supported the rule for the bill Friday.

During rule debate, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said he would vote for the rule and the bill because the need for a STEM visa program is so important. Blumenauer added that he hopes the Senate takes up the measure and works to improve it.

The Obama administration said on Wednesday that it opposes the House bill, and would rather deal with a comprehensive immigration bill that covers retaining talent, increased enforcement of immigration laws, and the creation of a pathway toward citizenship for illegal immigrants that have been in the country for years.