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House vote to boost sci-tech visas lays bare political rifts on immigration

The House approved a bill Friday to redirect 55,000 available visas to foreign students studying science, engineering, and math in the US. Some Democrats backed the GOP bill, but the vote shows why immigration is such a thorny issue for Congress.

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House passage of an immigration bill that swaps a lottery designed to diversity America’s immigrant population for visas targeted to students advanced in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) lays bare a yawning divide between Democrats and Republicans on the principles and process of immigration reform.

The Republican-backed measure, which passed Friday 245 to 139 (with 27 Democrats joining all but five Republicans in support), makes an immigration trade: 55,000 visas available through a State Department visa lottery, which go to people from nations underrepresented in the overall US immigrant population, will instead go to advanced graduates in STEM fields attending top American research universities. In addition, the bill permits, in some circumstances, noncitizen family members of naturalized US citizens to stay in the United States while awaiting their own permanent status.

The legislation has almost no hope of being considered in the Senate, given significant Democratic opposition.

Democrats and Republicans – and the high-tech companies who have lobbied vigorously for visas for employees they covet – agree that boosting the number of STEM visas is a worthy goal. Yet ahead of the vote, members of the two parties sparred on the House floor over their philosophical fractures on immigration policy.

Republicans see the STEM measure as an example of the best way forward on immigration reform: one step at a time to address pieces of the immigration puzzle.  

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