House Republicans Prefer Slices to Whole Pie on Immigration Reform

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

As President Barack Obama prepares to put forward a plan for comprehensive immigration reform, the idea of a single bill remains a nonstarter for Republicans in the House of Representatives. That opposition reduces the chances that the new Congress will pass stand-alone legislation allowing more highly trained immigrants to remain after earning graduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees from U.S. universities.

Speaking yesterday at a forum sponsored by Politico, two leading Republicans who support easing restrictions on foreign STEM graduates reiterated their preference for piecemeal reforms. "I don't think it should be a comprehensive bill because if you do that, every member will find something in it they don't like … and it will be almost impossible to pass in the House," asserted Representative Raul Labrador (R-ID), who appeared on a panel along with representatives Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). He added, "I think we should have a comprehensive approach, offering four or five or six bills that we can debate separately but vote on at the same time."

In 2011, Labrador introduced such a bill aimed at retaining STEM graduates. It was never voted on, but it served as a template for legislation championed by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), then chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Smith's bill, with a provision to end a lottery that allowed unskilled workers to earn permanent residency, passed the House on 30 November largely along party lines. But ending the diversity lottery made it anathema to the White House and many Democrats, and it died in the Senate.

Chaffetz won bipartisan support in the House more than a year ago for a more limited bill that would shorten the wait for visas for immigrants from countries with the highest number of applications. It passed overwhelmingly but met a similar fate in the Senate.

Labrador and Chaffetz yesterday accused the president of preferring a "political" victory—won by blaming congressional Republicans for inaction—over a "policy" victory achieved by negotiating a compromise bill acceptable to both sides. "You can't have it both ways," said Labrador.

Lofgren, in turn, blames House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) for the lack of an agreement on comprehensive reform, saying that he has refused to engage in serious negotiations. "It's a decision that the speaker has to make," she said at the Politico event, held at a hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. "If he says let's do it, I'm sure we can work out the details."

But Lofgren, whose district is home to many of the high-tech companies clamoring for high-skill immigration reform, saved her sharpest barbs for Smith, who derailed legislation she introduced that was similar to Labrador's bill. "I have to say that I have tried in vain to work with Chairman Smith," she said. "I think there are a lot of ways to deal with the diversity issue. But there was not a willingness to do that."

Smith, now chair of the House science committee, didn't attend the event. But he released a statement about his bill in response to a query from ScienceInsider.

"The STEM Jobs Act easily passed the House with strong support," Smith noted. "Throughout the process, we worked with members from across the aisle to make changes, including adding a provision that allowed spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents to come to the U.S. after waiting one year for their green cards. The bill would have been enacted if it had not been for the partisanship of the President, who discouraged Democrats from supporting the legislation in order to save the issue for comprehensive reform."

Labrador offered a slightly different analysis of why the legislation failed. In fact, he predicted that his House colleagues in the new Congress would support a bill that retains the diversity lottery if the Senate decides to remove that provision.

"It's an option for me," Labrador explained. "But you have to realize that this is Lamar Smith's bill. For it to pass in the House, you needed to have certain components in it [like] the diversity clause. But I can tell you that, if it goes to the Senate, and they take it out, I know that we will have enough votes in the House to pass it."

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