House Republicans, under pressure to improve their standing among Hispanic voters, passed legislation that would make it easier for foreigners with advanced degrees to obtain green cards.
The chamber today voted 245-139 to increase the number of permanent-residence visas for those graduating from U.S. universities with doctoral or master’s degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Republicans said the measure, backed by many prominent technology companies, would help the economy by capturing a bigger share of the world’s most economically productive citizens.
“We can only gain by asking as many people who are smart and who create opportunities far beyond just their own to be part of our society,” said Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican. “The benefit to our economy is undeniable.”
It was opposed by most Democrats, with many complaining that the measure would simultaneously eliminate a similar number of visas for people from countries that send relatively few immigrants to the U.S.
“You can’t pretend to be pro-immigrant and then eliminate immigration for one group to allow immigration for another,” said Representative Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat. “If you support this bill, you’re saying that one group of immigrants is better than another.”
The bill now heads to the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it is doomed. The Obama administration opposes the plan, though it said in a statement of administration policy that it was pleased to see immigration on lawmakers’ agenda.
“The administration is encouraged that the Congress appears to be ready to begin serious debate on the need to fix our broken immigration system and looks forward to working with both Democrats and Republicans,” the Office of Management and Budget said in the Nov. 28 statement.
The vote, coming just weeks after the 2012 elections, will give Republicans a chance to say they are acting on warnings from party strategists they must improve their standing among the quickly growing Hispanic population. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney took just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared with President Barack Obama’s 71 percent.
The legislation is supported by Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp. and Adobe Systems Inc., among other companies, according to Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the chamber’s No. 3 Republican.
At issue is how many, and what sort of, immigrants the U.S. ought to be admitting. The legislation passed today would reserve 55,000 visas for those with doctorates in the designated fields, though graduates with master’s degrees could benefit if not all of those green cards are taken. The bill would also make it easier for recipients’ spouses and under-age children to join them by allowing them to wait in the U.S. after spending one year on the green card wait list.
The bill wouldn’t result in an increase in total immigration because it would eliminate a similar number of visas offered through a program designed to encourage diversity among immigrants.
That program -- which sets aside green cards for countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S., such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Uzbekistan, Albania, Ghana and Morocco -- was created in 1990 as a counterweight to immigration policies biased toward applications of people who either already have family in the U.S. or fill certain employment needs.
Critics say that program is more vulnerable to fraud because it’s more difficult to conduct background checks in many of those countries. Supporters say without the program, immigration to the U.S. would be dominated by people from a few countries, such as Mexico, China, India and the U.K.
Lawmakers shouldn’t have to choose between the programs, said Representative Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat.
“In many cases, this is the only way that people from Nepal or Albania or Ethiopia have a shot at coming to this country,” he said. “There’s added value in having people from all corners of the world.”
“We also need people in this country across all different skill levels in our labor market,” said Polis, regardless of whether that includes “toiling in the field or toiling in downtown buildings at night or programming computers or designing aircraft.”
The bill is H.R. 6429.