Updated 3:01 p.m.
After being walloped by Latino voters in the election, the Republican Party’s first conciliatory immigration bill may result in the same Congressional gridlock that has stalled previous attempts at reform. Moreover, it is directed at a small sliver U.S. immigrants, calling into question the seriousness of the GOP.
The House will vote on the Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM) Jobs Act later this week, a bill that would give visas to foreigners with high-tech degrees from American universities, while eliminating a program that offers visas to poorer immigrants through a lottery to underrepresented countries.
An earlier version of bill was defeated in the House in September after 80% of Democrats voted against it. At the time, the House’s Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus all came out against it.
However, this version of the bill is expected to include a family-friendly provision that would allow the families of legal immigrants, those with green cards, to wait for their own visas within the United States, thus reuniting spouses and children. The AP put the impact at 322,000 husbands, wives, and children who are currently waiting to join a family member in the United States.
Yet, House Democrats say the bill is an effort to appear more pro-immigration, particularly as few expect it to pass in the Senate. “It is not very much to sweeten the pot for Democrats,” one Democratic House staffer told MSNBC.com.
The bill “is more about politics and optics for the Republicans than about anything substantive,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the chair of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus told MSNBC.com. “Republicans are more interested in killing the Diversity Visa program, which goes mostly to immigrants from Africa, than in creating a program for science and tech graduates.”
The STEM bill offers 55,000 visas to high-tech graduates of American universities and their families. It would function by eliminating the Diversity Visa program, an initiative that gives visas to immigrants from countries—typically in Africa and Latin America—with low rates of U.S. immigration and reallocating those visas into the STEM program.
“We don’t really fix the problem by having a zero-sum approach.” Bob Sakaniwa, the associate director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, explained. “They don’t have enough green cards for legitimate demand.”
Rep. Lamar Smith, the Republican from Texas who sponsored the bill, said that the Diversity Visa program “invites fraud and is a threat to our national security.” By attracting science and math doctoral graduates, Smith argued the STEM bill would further economic progress.
“We cannot afford to educate these foreign graduates in the U.S. and then send them back home to work for our competitors,” he said in a statement to MSNBC.com.
Sakaniwa said that while there have been issues and reported security loopholes with the Diversity Visa Program, it doesn’t mean the entire program should be scrapped: “It’s one thing to try and fix flaws in the system, it’s another thing to throw out the baby with the bath water,” he said.
House Democrats claimed the re-introduction of the bill with the new family-friendly concession is a last-ditch effort to appear more pro-immigration, but worry that it signals continued anti-immigration views that could obstruct comprehensive reform in the New Year.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the top Democrat on the House Immigration Subcommittee, introduced a competing bill, which she called the “Attracting the Best and the Brightest” act, that would maintain the Diversity Visa program as well as add STEM visas.
“Republicans know they have an anti-immigrant image problem, yet, unfortunately, they are proceeding with the Smith bill to pretend they’re pro-immigrant, even though it is a divisive bill that actually reduces legal immigration,” Lofgren said.
Democratic staffers say the bill may reduce immigration numbers because the number of STEM graduates seeking visas could fluctuate over time. The bill allows unused visas to roll over for the first four years, but after that, unused visas would disappear. Other portions of immigration law allow unused visas in programs to roll over into other programs, helping to meet demand.
Rep. Gutierrez also sees a party-wide opposition to immigration.
“The Republicans are still looking at immigration through the old lens that legal immigration is a problem that must be eliminated or never increased,” he said. “We don’t need to eliminate immigration for one group to allow immigration for another, we can and will reform immigration so that we have a controlled and legal flow that benefits the economy and keeps families together. But that is not what the Republicans are doing this week.”
Senate Republicans also tried on immigration reform proposals for size, introducing a limited version of the DREAM Act Tuesday. That competing bill, introduced by outgoing Sens. John Kyl and Kay Bailey Hutchison, would not put undocumented students on a path to citizenship as the Democratic version would do, instead allowing students to apply for extended visas at three different junctures, enabling them to stay in the country while they navigate existing channels to citizenship.
Correction: An earlier version of this story implied the family-friendly provision applied only to immigrants with high-tech degrees, those who fall under the STEM model. In fact, the new provision is broader than that and applies to families of green card holders who are currently waiting outside the U.S. to be rejoined with their family member.