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.
Ukraine actually had the most winners, with 6,424 — or less than 1 percent of the 852,856 who applied from that nation. For Nigeria, 6,218 applicants were awarded visas.
Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the New York University School of Law, said having diversity in the immigration system is a valuable goal and while encouraging more high-tech graduates to stay in the U.S. is laudable, it doesn’t need to happen at the expense of the lottery.
“Diversity is a strength, and the hallmark of America’s immigration selection system is our diversity. That’s not just ethnic [or] religious diversity, that’s diversity of skills and diversity of occupational backgrounds,” he said. “We can’t engineer this completely, but this is as good as we can get in finding some way of improving the diversity of our country.”
But Kris Kobach, Kansas’s secretary of state and a leading conservative who helped craft Arizona’s strict immigration law, said the U.S. should do a better job of picking and choosing its legal immigrants, and that means the lottery should be ended.
“Getting rid of the visa lottery is a good move regardless of where those visas go afterward,” he said. “In terms of advancing American interests, giving those visas to people with scientific or other special abilities to advance the American economy is preferable.”
This week’s House vote could be tight. Under the expedited rules being used, Mr. Smith’s legislation will need to win two-thirds support to pass, and its fate will depend on how many Democrats want to see the visa lottery system maintained.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat and a leading immigrant-rights advocate, said he supports more visas for these students but they shouldn’t come at the expense of other legal immigrants.
“There is no reason we need to cut legal immigration somewhere else to do that,” he said. “If we had a clean up or down vote on STEM visas, I bet most Democrats would support it, but the zero-sum approach of the Republicans, robbing Peter of his visa so Paul waits in a shorter backlog, that will probably be less popular.”
One other sticking point is what schools would qualify. Mr. Smith’s bill would apply to degrees from for-profit institutions, while Democrats’ versions would not. Democratic bills also include wage protections they said would prevent immigrant workers from undercutting Americans in the competition for jobs.