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Politics & Policy

Congress to Immigrants: Give Me Your Scientists

A few hundred skilled immigrants, including doctors and engineers, rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC

Photograph by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

A few hundred skilled immigrants, including doctors and engineers, rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC

You might not believe it, based on all the attack ads they’re running against each other, but there is one thing Democrats and Republicans actually agree on right now: giving out more visas to foreigners who graduate from technology and science programs at U.S. universities. Four members of Congress—two Democrat and two Republican—are starting to push bills that would increase the number of visas the U.S. gives to these highly skilled grads.

The Republicans, Representative Lamar Smith and Senator John Cornyn, are both from Texas, where 38 percent of the population have Hispanic origins. Their pieces of legislation would more than double the number of visas for science, math, and engineering grads, to 55,000 from 20,000. They’d do this by eliminating the lottery that awards papers to 55,000 random visa seekers, which means the total number of immigrants allowed to stay in the U.S. wouldn’t rise. The bills sponsored by Democrats—New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who plans to announce his today, and California Representative Zoe Lofgren—would also raise the number of graduate visas to 55,000, but without getting rid of the lottery.

At the Democratic and Republican conventions last month, both parties adopted nearly identical positions on these visas in their platforms. Even President Obama and Mitt Romney, who took one of the harshest stances on immigration during the GOP primaries, are in agreement on this one. Romney this summer went as far as to say he would “staple a green card” to the diplomas of these graduates.

With both parties seemingly so aligned, is there anything that could stop policymakers from taking action?

Yes. This is an issue where the strongest divisions lie within the parties, not between them. The pro-business wing of the GOP wants nothing more than to open the borders to more highly skilled workers, but many in the rank and file believe immigrants are taking American jobs. These Republicans fear that any action to raise visa caps will open the floodgates of immigration reform. For Democrats, the sticking point is with union members, who worry about their own job security.

Lawmakers have to decide whether it makes sense politically to act now on what you could call the low-hanging fruit of the immigration debate, when neither party has any solution for dealing with the more than 11 million illegals living in the U.S. Some legislators see the student visa issue as a potential bargaining chip down the line and part of the broader debate over comprehensive immigration reform. Others are ready to take a vote now.

Even if Congress doesn’t act, the bills will still be good for something. Lawmakers are about to recess until after the election. That means they’ll have a good five weeks out on the campaign trail to talk up what they’re trying to do on immigration.

Dwoskin is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow her on Twitter: @lizzadwoskin.

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