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Visa increase for foreign scientists wins tenuous victory in US House

Just two months after rejecting a nearly identical immigration measure, members of the US House of Representatives passed a bill on 30 November to grant permanent residency for up to 55,000 foreign researchers with US degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Both measures were introduced by Republican lawmaker Lamar Smith of Texas, who will leave his chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee in January to lead the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

“In a global economy, we cannot afford to educate these foreign graduates in the US and then send them back home to work for our competitors,” said Smith in a statement. “This legislation will help us create jobs, increase our competitiveness, and spur our innovation.”

The House had rejected Smith’s first STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) immigration bill on 20 September under a regulation that required a two-thirds majority vote. But the new bill required a simple majority, which was met in a 245 to 139 vote on Friday.

“We are very pleased with today’s vote. It shows that the House is serious about high-tech immigration reform, and we look forward to making more progress in 2013,” says Chris McManes, a spokesperson for IEEE-USA, which advocates for US members of the New York-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

The bill would provide so-called ‘green-card’ status to the scientists and engineers by eliminating the diversity visa lottery, which now awards those green cards randomly to citizens of underrepresented countries.

The Democrat-controlled Senate is unlikely to support the latest measure, however. Republican and Democratic decision-makers have expressed growing consensus on the need to expand high-skilled immigration, but they have clashed on balancing STEM immigration with other aspects of US immigration reform, including the diversity visa lottery.

The White House issued an official statement of opposition on 29 November ahead of the House vote, saying that the proposal did not meet the administration’s “long-term objectives with respect to comprehensive immigration reform.”

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