Republican STEM visa bill fails

Sen. Schumer urges new negotiations over visas for advanced-degree graduates in science, technology, engineering and math

A Republican-led effort to issue up to 55,000 STEM visas a year to students who earn advanced degrees at U.S. universities was defeated Thursday in a House vote.

Because the bill was brought up on the suspension calendar, it needed a two-thirds vote, or about 290 ayes, for approval. It supporters came up short, 257 to 158.

The vote brought predictable calls of blame from both parties, but not from U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who has introduced his own STEM bill. Schumer urged U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who sponsored the House bill, to seek new negotiations.

"A bipartisan compromise can easily be ready for the lame duck session," Schumer said in a statement. "There is too broad a consensus in favor of this policy to settle for gridlock."

The bill quickly became part of the larger immigration debate. Although the legislation was targeted at advanced-degree holders from U.S. universities, Democrats charged that it was designed to reduce legal immigration and that's what made it palatable to conservatives.

Smith's bill was introduced after the two sides failed to reach an agreement on a compromise.

Both parties support the idea of making green cards available to students who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM degrees, from U.S. universities. But they disagree on how to do it.

A leading point of contention was the Republican bill's repurposing of 55,000 visas issued through the visa diversity lottery to create STEM visas. Many Democrats opposed eliminating the visa lottery.

Smith needed at least 50 Democrats to support his bill to win passage. "Unfortunately, Democrats today voted to send the best and brightest foreign graduates back home to work for our global competitors," he said in a statement.

"Democrats voted against a bill that helps American businesses hire the most qualified foreign graduates with advanced STEM degrees," said Smith. "Their vote against this bill is a vote against economic growth and job creation."

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who introduced her own bill, said she could not support Smith's bill.

"Although this bill ostensibly seeks to increase STEM visas, it appears to have another, in my opinion, more sinister purpose -- to actually reduce legal immigration levels," said Lofgren, in a statement.

Lofgren cited the elimination of the diversity visa, but also faulted the bill for now allowing unused visas to be used to reduce green card backlogs.

Chuck Schumer's bill is similar to Lofgren's bill.

Congress is due to soon recess in advance of the November election.

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.

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