How The GOP Proposal To Add Visas For Highly Skilled Workers Would Reduce Legal Immigration

Later this week, the House will vote on a Republican-backed bill that will limit legal immigration under the guise of trying to expand the number of visas available to international students who earn masters and doctorates in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — at U.S. universities. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) is introducing the bill that would add 50,000 STEM visas by cutting the Diversity Visa program, which is intended for immigrants from countries that do not already send large numbers of immigrants to the U.S. Recently, about half of these visas have gone to immigrants from African nations, but under Smith’s plan, they would all be eliminated.

Additionally, Smith’s bill would reduce the number of visas available by letting unused STEM visas disappear. For the first two years, the program would recapture any unused visas and allocate them for people who applied during those two years. But after FY 2014, any visa that is not allocated to a STEM graduate basically would disappear, shrinking overall legal immigration into the U.S.

To counter the Republican measure, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) introduced a Democratic alternative that would expand STEM visas while still protecting the Diversity Visa program and adding additional protections for foreign and U.S. STEM graduates. Lofgren’s measure would expire after two years so that Congress can decide if it should be continued, while the Republican version does not have an end date.

Here’s how Lofgren’s bill compares to the Republican proposal:

In addition to the Democratic and Republican STEM visa bills in the House, Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY) also plans to introduce his own STEM bill, which expands visas while also saving diversity visas.

A lobbyist for the tech industry told Politico Smith’s bill is the “capstone of the Republican tech agenda,” but Democrats oppose the legislation for taking away one avenue for legal immigration. “Republicans are only willing to increase legal immigration for immigrants they want by eliminating legal immigration for immigrants they don’t want,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) said in a statement.

Expanding the number of visas available to international students who study math and science in the U.S. is not a controversial idea. More than three-quarters of all Americans — including 69 percent of conservatives — support creating STEM visas. But Republicans turned it into a partisan issue with a bill that cuts off one avenue for legal immigration in exchange for another. The U.S. needs to make it easier for tech companies to hire skilled foreign students who have studied math and science at American universities, but following the GOP’s plan and doing it at the cost of other immigration programs is not worth it.