Latino Republicans such as Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Butler passed a STEM visa bill which eliminates diversity visas through the lottery system.

Latino Republicans such as Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Butler passed a STEM visa bill which eliminates diversity visas through the lottery system. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

STEM immigration bill passes House, Latinos divided along partisan lines

Esteban Contreras is a social media strategist and technology expert who currently lives in Vancouver, Canada with his family. The Guatemalan native obtained his university degree here in the United States, and was doing well professionally.  But immigration issues in the U.S. just got too hard for Contreras and his Canadian wife, who are both ambitious and well-educated.

“We moved here to Canada because my H1B visa did not allow my wife to work, and we always felt like we were foreigners in a sort of limbo,” says Contreras.  “From developers in web startups to statisticians who will be in greater demand, there are so many talented people who want to live in the U.S. – I definitely hope more programs open up doors for people,” he adds.

Today the House of Representatives tried to increase the number of skilled science and technology professionals by approving the STEM Jobs Act, which makes available more visas – 55,000 of them – to foreign graduates of American universities who hold advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.  It also ensures that the spouses and children of these graduates can get green cards after one year, thus encouraging keeping families together. The bill was co-sponsored by newly elected Latino Idaho Republican congressman Raul Labrador. “This is a good bill; it would strengthen our economy, it will create jobs,” he said.

But here’s the catch.  In order to expand these kind of skilled foreign worker visas, the House members voted to eliminate the diversity visa program, which grants visas to immigrants from different countries through a lottery system.

Republican Florida Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, who voted for the bill, defended the legislation on the House floor this morning.  He said that while maybe the House can debate expanding the number of visas it awards, allowing foreign students who become technology and science experts to leave the country after attending American universities because of our current immigration system is “the mother of all outsourcing.”  Diaz-Balart adds,   “This bill tries to solve that issue; it keeps those individuals here.”

Jaime Herrera Butler, a Latina Republican congresswoman from Washington state, also supported the bill.   “Let’s stop treating this issue like a political football,” she said, adding, “As the first American of Hispanic descent to represent Washington State here in the United States House, I want us to tackle this issue.”

But Latino Democrats, as well as some immigration reform groups around the country, strongly opposed the bill.

“You can’t pretend to be pro-immigrant and eliminate immigration from one group to allow another group to come,” said Illinois Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who voted against the bill.  Gutierrez accused Republicans of letting in immigrants “they like” by not allowing immigrants they “don’t like,” adding, “immigration is always a zero sum game for my colleagues on the other side.”

Don Lyster, Director of the National Immigration Law Center, also disagrees with the passage of the bill.   “Diversity is one of the few mechanisms from which people from low-immigration countries can come here legally,” says Lyster.  “This is just a handout for businesses, and that’s not what voters mandated on Election Day; voters want real reform,” he adds.

Shortly after today’s STEM Jobs vote, Frank Sharry, the executive director of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice, said today’s vote does not address the major immigration issue facing Congress. “The plight of 11 million Americans-in-waiting is a defining issue for a majority of voters.”

President Barack Obama said he would not sign the bill into law if it was not part of a larger comprehensive immigration reform package.

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