House Democrats defeated the broadest immigration reform effort yet in this Congress, voting down a bill on Thursday that would have ended the random visa lottery and replaced it with a system rewarding high-tech foreign graduates from U.S. universities.
The vote showed neither side is ready to break the stalemate that has foiled every major immigration bill for the past decade.
This latest effort would have tried to rewrite the country’s immigration priorities, shifting away from random chance and toward picking skilled workers that Republicans said could boost the U.S. economy.
“Unfortunately, Democrats today voted to send the best and brightest foreign graduates back home to work for our global competitors,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, who wrote the bill. “Democrats voted against a bill that helps American businesses hire the most qualified foreign graduates.”
Most Democratic opponents said they didn’t oppose visas for high-tech graduates, but objected to canceling the random chance visa lottery. Democrats said the lottery is a key way that the U.S. gets immigrants from countries that don’t have long-standing business or family ties to the United States.
Black, Hispanic and Asian Democrats all urged their colleagues to block the move.
“We strongly oppose a zero-sum game that trades one legal immigration program for another,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr., the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat, had an alternative that would have kept the visa lottery and added a new high-tech visa category. That plan would have boosted overall legal immigration by about 50,000 visas per year.
But Republicans did not allow a chance to vote on her version, arguing that voters tell pollsters they want to see immigration either kept the same or reduced, but not increased.
Mr. Smith’s bill earned a majority in the House, 257-158, but fell 20 votes shy of the two-thirds vote needed under expedited House rules. Only 30 Democrats voted for it — well short of the number GOP leaders had expected to join them.
Five Republicans joined most Democrats in opposition.
The bill would have canceled the diversity visa lottery, which was created in 1990 and which awards green cards to as many as 55,000 people each year through random chance. The goal was to broaden immigration and give a chance to those who don’t have family ties, key business skills or asylum claims, which are the backbone of the system.
Those visas would have been recaptured and used for the high-tech workers Mr. Smith said the U.S. should be targeting.
He said the diversity system is rife with fraud, and others pointed to figures showing those who come here through the lottery have higher unemployment, on average and are a bigger burden on taxpayers than other immigrants.
Analysts said that’s because they come without any of the family or employment support structure that most other immigrants have when the immigrate.