Immigration Reform: Republican Supported STEM Immigration Reform Will Only Succeed as a Symbolic Gesture

The GOP-dominated House, perhaps looking to shore up its support among Hispanic and other minority voters after a disappointing election, is supporting a piece of immigration reform legislation that will be voted on this week. It comes in the form of the Republican-supported STEM Jobs Act, which would expand green cards available for masters and doctoral graduates in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields and make it easier for holders of green cards bring their families to the U.S. It is a signal that House Republicans, in response to their post-election soul-searching, realize that they must get serious about immigration reform to remain relevant to important demographics. Pressure for an immigration overhaul has been mounting in response not only to demographics, but also to the United States' impending deficit of STEM graduates.

Support for STEM visas is bi-partisan, as the necessity of professionals in these fields is widely recognized. In March, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) reported that if the U.S. wishes to maintain its “historic preeminence” in STEM fields, then our education system needs to produce 1 million more STEM undergraduate degrees over the next decade. Since this huge requirement would entail a 34% increase in undergraduate STEM degrees, it makes sense across the aisle for the Unites States to supplement our home grown graduates with the best and brightest from other nations while we work on improving our education system.

However, there is no agreement on the best way to provide these essential visas, and the STEM Jobs act, which does not increase visas overall, is unlikely to be the answer. In September, an earlier version of the bill, which required a two-thirds majority, was defeated in the House 257 to 158, with 80% of Democrats voting against it; this time, it only needs a majority and is expected to sail through the House.

Yet the bill will not make it through the democratic-controlled Senate because of the unpopular way it makes up for those extra green cards – by taking them from another, perhaps more egalitarian program. The 55,000 green cards that would be allotted to STEM graduates are taken away from the Diversity Visa Lottery Program, which gives the same number of green cards to immigrants from countries with low immigration rates to the U.S., many of which are in Africa. These immigrants are still required to have some level of education, in the form of a high school diploma. The GOP’s proposal to gut this program has caused the House's Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus to oppose the bill since September on the basis that it simply provides green cards to immigrants Republicans want by taking them away from people they don’t want.

To sugarcoat this unpopular swap, this time GOP representatives, looking to show that they are serious about immigration reform, have added a proposal long sought after by immigration advocates. It would allow the spouses and minor children of people with permanent residence to wait in the U.S., with their loved ones, as they await a green card. Although they still would have to wait one year after filing their green card application to come to the U.S., and would not be able to work before they obtained it, the measure would still go an important way towards reuniting families long separated by the immigration maze.

In this lame-duck session of Congress, though, it is unlikely we will see serious immigration reform. The STEM Jobs Act is a welcome sign that Republicans are ready to seriously discuss immigration, but it will not get the support it needs to become law. Although both sides of the aisle appear ready to think about broader reform, this less expansive bill that does not increase visas overall is ill-suited to turn this growing support for immigration reform into Congressional votes. Instead of piecemeal legislation that improves immigration bit-by-bit, lawmakers should instead focus their efforts on a larger, more comprehensive immigration bill that accounts not only for STEM graduates and families, but also for the many other broken parts of our immigration system.