It’s no secret that the United States faces pressing immigration issues. Immigration reform has been, and will continue to be, a key voter issue. Whether change occurs through piece-by-piece immigration bills or comprehensive reform, partisan politics leads the way in what does, and does not get accomplished.

On November 30th, 2012, the House passed the STEM Jobs Act. The bill, written by Texas representative Lamar Smith, aims to grant green cards to 55,000 immigrants per year that have received doctorate or masters degrees in STEM fields at accredited US universities.

According to the bill, graduates in STEM fields, which are science, technology, engineering and math, are behind new innovations and businesses that are part of present and future economic growth. Currently, foreign students receive nearly four out of every ten doctorate degrees in STEMfields.

Those in favor of the bill see it as a way to keep highly skilled graduates in the US, helping to foster economic development and entrepreneurship. Yet STEM is also mired in controversy, with some critiques taking aim at its exclusivity.

Who qualifies?

The STEM Jobs Act grants a select group of immigrants green cards through fulfillment of a strict set of qualifications. Besides needing a PhD or masters degree in one of the STEM fields, all coursework needs to have been completed in the US, and the graduate must have been petitioned for by an employer who has gone through labor certification to show that there are not sufficient American workers, ready, willing and able for the job in question.

The text of the bill says it will protect American students and workers by requiring that employers post job offers through the state’s workforce agency, making opportunities as accessible as possible to American graduates first. In addition to job posting, the bill does not consider biological and biomedical degrees part of the STEM field due to difficult career prospects for American students graduating in those fields.

The portion of the bill dedicated to making it easier for high skilled immigrants to get visas was received positively from both sides of the ideological line. In fact, providing opportunities to young professionals from universities across the United States has been a reoccurring point in President Obama’s rhetoric.

The Washington Post quotes President Obama as saying, “I am a believer that if you’ve got a PhD in physics or computer science who wants to stay here and start a business here, we shouldn’t make it harder for them to stay here.”

Even with support from the President, the STEM Jobs Act was blocked by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and remains in limbo until Representative Smith meets concessions or other immigration bills are tabled.

The Evolution of US Immigration Policy

A major critique of the STEM Jobs Act is that it eliminates the Diversity Visa (DV) Program. Also called the “green card lottery,” the program was designed to increase immigration from countries with fewer than 50,000 immigrants over the course of the previous five years, not including refugees and asylum seekers.

The Diversity Visa Program requires that applicants have a high school education or two years of work experience in an occupation that requires at least two years of training or experience. Before getting their green cards, they are screened for fraud and the Department of State runs a background check.

According to immigration policy expert Dr. Maggie Peters, immigration reform has been evolving sine the early 19th century. During the early 1920s a series of quota acts were passed that allocated a majority of visas to people from Europe.

“They were pretty racist and ethnocentric in that they allocated a lot of quota from Northern and Western Europe, some quota from Southern and Eastern Europe, and places like Asia and Africa were basically excluded,” says Peters.

In 1965 the US discontinued the quota acts on the basis that they constituted racism and adopted the policies that are the foundation of the current immigration law. What became the Family Reunification Program was meant to allow natives, permanent residents and people who became citizens, to sponsor foreign family members.

“At the time, because most immigrants in the US were from Europe, this would mean we’d still mostly have Europeans migrating, but we wouldn’t have racist laws,” Peters explains. “That didn’t work out the way the policy makers thought, we had huge migrations of Hispanics and Asians, and fewer migrations of people from Europe.”

This result led to the Immigration Act of 1990 in which Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy created the Diversity Visa Program to increase Irish immigration and allocate visas to people who were not currently immigrating to the US or had difficulty getting citizenship.

After almost 25 years politicians, constituents and lobbyists alike are beginning to question if the DV program has run its course.

Assessing the merits of STEM and the Diversity Visa Program

The green card lottery, one of the only immigration lottery systems in the world, has been criticized as being unfair, admitting up to 55,000 people at random, while over 300,000 family members remain on the waiting list to get visas to reconnect with their families.

On the other hand, the STEM Jobs Act also includes a clause to reconnect family members. The bill states that spouses and minor children of permanent residents will be allowed to wait in the US for green cards to become available after they have spent one year on a green card waiting list.

The Diversity Visa program has also been criticized for welcoming unskilled workers into an already suffering economy.

The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank called the STEM Jobs Act the next step for high-skilled immigration reform, stating that, “the legislation would also do away with the Diversity Visa (DV) program…which has been plagued by fraud and welcomes a much higher degree of low-skilled labor.”

According to Peters, “People that are for a STEM immigration bill say we need high skill immigrants because that’s where we want our economy to grow and these high skilled immigrants create companies that provide economic benefits.” She goes onto say that highly skilled immigrants, “pay more taxes than receive benefits, which could help with the fiscal situation in the US.”

Yet, Peters points out that the problem with the STEM act is that the US does not solely need high skilled immigrants. “We could use many lower skilled immigrants to do all sorts of tasks, people who are willing to help with lower paying, low skill jobs. More and more Americans want to go to college and get good paying jobs, the problem with STEM is that you don’t fix those needs of our economy.”

On an international scale, leaders of countries that are home to highly skilled immigrants fear aSTEM bill would take away the most educated portions of their population. An effect referred to as the “Brain Drain” that takes the most educated people from developing countries and employs them in the US, a result that has a negative impact on economic growth in developing countries.

In the attempt to discredit the DV program, Smith, creator of the STEM Jobs Act, said, “Basing our immigration system on the luck of the draw is not smart immigration policy. It’s an open invitation for fraud and a jackpot for terrorists.”

But based on the number of diversity immigrants in 2011, less than 2 percent of the immigrants granted green cards through the program came from countries the US qualifies as likely hosts of terrorism.

However, Peters explains that because the DV program looks for countries with few migrants, a lot of which come from the Middle East or Northern Africa, one could argue that it increases the likelihood of possible terrorists coming in with green cards.

“But it’s not like you just enter a lottery and the State Department doesn’t look at you,” says Peters. “If someone was good enough to get past the background check, they’d probably get in otherwise. People who are likely to enter who want to harm Americans are much more likely to come in other ways…I think this is just another argument, and not a particularly compelling one.”

Gridlock: the future of immigration reform

After the Senate blocked Representative Smith’s bill he released a statement saying, “The President and Senate Democrats need to join with us to get this small piece of immigration reform done now…Unfortunately, President Obama and Senate Democrats seem to value their partisan agenda more than job creation and economic growth.”

Oddly enough, representative Smith may have an agenda of his own. With a history of staunch anti-immigration policies including voting yes to build a fence along the Mexican border, voting yes to report illegal aliens who receive hospital treatment, and voting yes on extending Immigrant Residency rules. This record makes it hard not to wonder why all of a sudden Smith has had a change of heart with regard to immigration reform.

Peters suggests two possible options, the STEM Jobs Act is a politically popular program, the majority of the US population supports an open policy towards people with high skills, and that a lot of companies with substantial lobbying power want high-tech immigrants.

“For someone like Smith, politically, it’s important for the Republican Party to look more pro-immigration, especially after what happened in the past election. But being from Texas, an area with high anti-Mexican immigration sentiments, [a STEM bill] is a relatively easy bill to support.”

The bill is so easy to support, that Peter believes it would have passed fairly easily in the Senate, but passing it now would have taken away a point of power for Democrats in advancing comprehensive immigration reform.

“The Democrats want a much more comprehensive bill on immigration, they want to deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants in the US in a way that isn’t just deporting them all,” explains Peters. “Reid would want some grand bargain in immigration and doesn’t want to give up on the popular part with Republicans, and STEM is something popular with Democrats and Republicans. Democrats see it as their main bargaining chip in getting reform in immigration.”

Yet with the national focus turning to gun control and the debt ceiling, comprehensive immigration reform may be put on hold.

With partisan politics and imperfect policies clouding the conversation of immigration reform, change seems unlikely, regardless of the priority of those in office. With ideology leading the way in comprehensive change, we can expect years until reform occurs.

“Personally, I predict gridlock,” says Peters.