White House opposes GOP STEM visa bill, as heat rises

Obama administration instead seeks legislation that would offer comprehensive immigration reform

WASHINGTON -- The White House is all for the idea of a STEM visa, just not the one in a bill by House Republicans.

In a "statement of administration policy" issued late Wednesday, the White House said that while it "strongly supports legislation to attract and retain foreign students who graduate with advance STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) degrees," it does not support "narrowly tailored proposals" that do not meet its goal of "comprehensive immigration reform."

In sum, the White House didn't raise specific objections to U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith's (R-Texas) bill to make up to 55,000 STEM visas available to advanced degree graduates of U.S. Universities.

But the statement said the Obama administration wants a comprehensive bill that addresses the panoply of immigration issues, including "a pathway for undocumented workers."

Smith's bill, the STEM Jobs Act of 2012 (H.R. 6429), was voted on in the House in September, but failed.

The bill was initially brought up on the suspension calendar, thus requiring two-thirds vote for passage. It failed by a vote of 257 to 158.

This time, Smith said the bill would only require a majority vote for passage, so approval is expected.

Democrats favoring comprehensive immigration reform worry that they will fracture their base of support if they give the tech industry what it wants.

But the plot around this bill is also little thicker.

Democrat sources in the House say that the GOP STEM visa bill was written without bipartisan negotiations, and therefore has no chance of passage in the U.S. Senate.

Smith, in a statement, says he has tried to work with Democrats on a deal but failing that he decided to move ahead on the legislation.

"American companies need these workers and our economy needs this legislation to help create jobs," said Smith, citing strong support from industry groups and employers. "I am disappointed that some Democrats may vote against an important bill that will help us create jobs, increase our competitiveness, and spur our innovation."

The Democrats have specific technical reasons for opposing the bill. The Republican plan calls for eliminating the diversity lottery, which issues about 55,000 green cards a year via lottery and repurposes them for visas.

Underlying this visa swap approach are concerns that Republicans have adopted a "Grover Norquist-style" (no new taxes) pledge to immigration.

In this case, STEM green cards are only possible if green cards are subtracted in some other category. The end result is there's no net change in the number of green cards issued each year.

"Without new green cards, we cannot craft meaningful solutions for other employment-based immigrants," said U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), in a statement about the House bill. Those immigrants could include, for instance, immigrants who could get visas under Dream Act provisions.

Another problem with the House bill, from the Democrat's perspective, is a limited rollover provision for unused visas. The initial version of Smith's bill didn't include a rollover, but this bill does. The latest bill allows a rollover in the first four years only.

Democrats contend that once backlogs are eliminated, the STEM bill will actually reduce immigration.

Smith's bill is getting mixed reviews from groups seeking immigration reductions. NumbersUSA is "neutral" on the bill. But another group with similar goals, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) opposes it.

FAIR says the bill "encourages an unlimited number of foreign students to attend U.S. universities and major in STEM fields," and "would create competition for American students of math and science both during the admissions process and then upon graduation."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS 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.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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