U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who is chair of the Senate's Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee, is introducing his own STEM visa bill to challenge a similar Republican bill in the House.
Schumer's bill, which is expected to be announced Tuesday, will provide 55,000 green cards for foreign students who graduate with advance degrees in the so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
In that one respect it's similar to the House bill that U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is introducing. Smith's bill, the STEM Jobs Act, may be brought up for a vote on Thursday.
But Schumer's bill, which has many of the features of U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren's (D-Calif.) STEM visa legislation, announced Friday, is also being used as a vehicle to attack Smith's bill for allowing for-profit schools.
The big political issue for law makers, however, may be the visa lottery. Democrats keep the diversity or green card lottery, which issues 55,000 visas annually to lottery winner. The Smith bill repurposes the 55,000 diversity visas to the STEM green cards, eliminating the lottery.
A vote this week on the Smith bill will give lawmakers an idea of the willingness of Democrats to support the Republican approach to STEM visas.
The Smith bill is expected to be raised on the suspension calendar requiring two-thirds vote for approval, which means 290 votes, including at least 50 votes from Democrats.
Congress is planning to recess Friday for the election, ensuring that any STEM visa bill, should one emerge for the president's signature, will occur during the lame duck session.
Schumer, in a summary explaining his legislation, attacks the Republican STEM bill. The Senator says that unlike the STEM Jobs Act in the House, the Brains Act, short for the Benefits to Research and American Innovation through Nationality Statutes Act of 2012, "does not outsource America's high-skilled immigration system to special interests by allowing for-profit colleges and online institutions to reap massive profits by gaming America's immigration laws to attract unqualified foreign student consumers."
The Brains Act doesn't allow non-profit schools or online institutions to participate in the STEM visa program, a move it says "will ensure that only the most qualified of students will be given access to scarce green cards."
The Republican bill allows for profit schools, but sets restrictions, requiring that the schools be doctorate-granting universities "with a very high or high level of research activity." In regard to online training, it requires students to be physically present in the U.S.
Smith, in a request for comment about Schumer's criticism, sent this response by email: "The STEM Jobs Act narrowly defines what constitutes a research university to ensure STEM green cards are only given to the top foreign students graduating from American universities."
"The STEM Jobs Act does not discriminate against for-profit or online schools but does contain stringent criteria for universities wanting to participate in the new green card program. Universities are only eligible for the program if they have been classified by the widely-respected Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as doctorate-granting institutions with high levels of research activity or classified by the National Science Foundation as having an equivalent level of research activity," Smith said. "This helps ensure that STEM green cards are not just a golden ticket for those wanting to come to the U.S."
Daniel Costa, an immigration policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, said, "If the Smith bill would have left the school requirement as only doctorate granting universities with a 'very high or high level of research activity' as determined by Carnegie, that would have been a little bit better than what's actually in the bill."
That amounts to a total of 207 schools, which "way to too many in my opinion to be the elite homes of the best of the brightest," said Costa. But the Smith bill "inserts a loophole" that allows a school to apply to the National Science Foundation for a waiver. A waiver can be granted if the NSF finds the school to have "equivalent research activity to those institutions" that Carnegie has designated, he said.
While Costa believes "it's unfortunate [the] Smith Bill doesn't explicitly exclude for-profit schools" and online programs, he is not sure that it includes them as Lofgren's fact sheet claims. None of the schools among the 207 are private, for-profit schools, but the question mark will be over the NSF waiver process and what that allows, he said.
The Schumer bill also says that any unused STEM visa green cards will be used "to reduce the backlog for employment-based green cards that exists for highly-skilled STEM advanced-degree graduates from foreign universities."
All sides had been in talks about the possibility of compromise and a bipartisan bill, but those talks broke down last week.
Both parties broadly support a STEM visa. But Republicans are opposed to the idea of raising legal immigration, which made the STEM visa swap with the diversity visa lottery appealing.
The Democrats are less willing to trade-off the diversity lottery. The tech industry is also opposed to constraining immigration, but may nonetheless support Smith's bill when it comes up for vote.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.