Democrats produce rival STEM visa bill

Bill seeks to keep green card lottery, in addition to creating a new visa for science, technology, engineering and maths graduates

The U.S. House now has dueling STEM visa bills, thanks to a bill introduced on Friday by Democrats.

The Democrat's bill, similar to a Republican proposal, provides up to 55,000 green cards to advanced degree graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so called STEM fields.

But the similarities end there. The rival bill, introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), along with 11 co-sponsors, preserves the diversity visa lottery or green card lottery. The Republican bill eliminates it.

The U.S. now issues about 55,000 green cards annually under a lottery program. The Republican STEM visa proposal, introduced from Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and the chair of the Judiciary Committee, repurposes the lottery visas as STEM visas.

Instead of eliminating the visa lottery program, Lofgren's measure creates a new "EB-6" green card category for the visa lottery. Democrats want this legislation to expire after two years to allow lawmakers to consider whether to continue it. The Republican proposal doesn't include a sunset provision.

There are other differences as well. Democrats want to ensure that STEM visa holders receive "the actual wage paid to U.S. workers with similar levels of experience," the intent of which is to prevent visa holders from being hired at a prevailing wage level that's below a salary received by co-workers with similar experience. It may also include factoring in such benefits as stock options into the salary estimate.

The Democrats' bill excludes for-profit schools from participating in the STEM visa program. The Republicans allows for-profit schools, but these institutions must rise to the level of research universities under a criteria set out in the bill.

The two sides had been in talks about producing a bipartisan bill, but that effort broke down this week, prompting Smith to introduce his own bill and the Democrats to act independently.

Congress is expected to meet for just one more week before it breaks for a recess leading up to the election. Smith is expected to bring his STEM visa bill up for vote on the suspension calendar next week, requiring a two-thirds vote for approval.

To pass, it will need some Democratic support. People on both sides, speaking only on background, aren't predicting any outcome.

The Democrat's bill is more of a counterpoint to the Republican bill than a piece of legislation that has any chance of passage. But it also sends ideas to the Senate.

The Senate won't have much opportunity to act until after the election. The key person there will be U.S. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is likely to offer his own STEM visa proposal.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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