A big immigration deal is still elusive but Congress is suddenly rushing to take a smaller nibble at the issue, with the House slated to vote on a Republican proposal later this week that would open up tens of thousands of green cards to foreigners who promise to bring their science and technology skills to the U.S.
The legislation, written by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, would end the Diversity Visa Lottery — a two-decade-old program that doles out green cards based on random chance. Instead, it would earmark those visas for students who graduate with doctorates or master’s degrees in high-tech fields from American universities.
“In a global economy, we cannot afford to educate these foreign graduates in the U.S. and then send them back home to work for our competitors,” the Texas Republican said. “For America to be to the world’s economic leader, we must have access to the world’s best talent.”
The international battle for talent draws bipartisan support. Democrats announced their own versions of legislation, which overlap Mr. Smith’s bill to a significant degree.
Both Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, the top Democrat on the House’s immigration subcommittee, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the top Democrat on the Senate’s immigration subcommittee, have announced bills that would create at least 50,000 new green cards for science or tech graduates. But unlike Mr. Smith, they keep the diversity lottery in place.
The spurt of interest marks a stark and potentially significant shift in the immigration debate on Capitol Hill, where matters have been at a stalemate since President George W. Bush tried to push a broad overhaul through the Senate in 2007, only to see it defeated after angry voters shut down the switchboard with their calls.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney rejoined the legal immigration debate this weekend by giving more details on his own proposal. Like Mr. Smith, he said he would end the diversity lottery. But he would use those visas to let other green-card holders bring their immediate families to the U.S. In addition, he proposed that for anyone who gets an advanced degree he wants to “staple a green card to their diploma.”
Like Democrats, Mr. Romney’s plan would mean an increase in legal immigration. Mr. Smith’s legislation, known as the STEM Act because it deals with science, technology, engineering and math students, would keep immigration the same.
All of the plans raise big questions about the purpose of the U.S. immigration system, which currently favors those with family members already here; 65 percent of new legal immigrants in 2011 were based on a family relationship.
Current law also rewards refugees and asylum seekers, who made up 16 percent of immigrants, and those with sought-after work skills, who were 13 percent, including nearly 67,000 who gained admission because they hold advanced degrees.
The diversity lottery, implemented in a 1990 law, doesn’t really fit any of those categories, said Madeleine Sumption, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. Instead, it offers a chance for those from countries that don’t have long-standing ties to the U.S. to get in — purely on chance.
Indeed, those from countries such as China, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, India and the Philippines are not even allowed to apply since so many of their countrymen already immigrate.
“It’s based on the idea that people should have the option to migrate to the U.S. even if none of those other three things apply,” Ms. Sumption said. “There isn’t an immediate constituency for the diversity visa, and I think that’s why it’s most often on the chopping blocks.”
She also said those who come on diversity visas generally have higher unemployment and a more difficult time acclimating than other immigrants, presumably because they aren’t selected for their work prospects and don’t come with a family network to back them up.
For fiscal 2013, the government received 7.9 million applications for the visa lottery’s 55,000 slots. Nigerians made up the biggest pool, with 1.4 million applications. Ghana was second with 908,910.