WASHINGTON — House Republicans hailed passage of a narrowly crafted immigration bill benefiting high-tech master's and PhD degree students, arguing a piecemeal approach to the thorny issue is the only way forward.
The so-called “STEM bill,” which lifts requirements that foreign students leave the country once their degree programs are completed, has virtually no chance of becoming law: President Obama has said he wants to tackle immigration in a comprehensive manner and activists have opposed the measure.
Still, it makes clear that Republicans will embrace the issue in the 113th Congress and provides a preview of the economic arguments Republicans will make in pressing for reforms to the immigration system.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor praised the bill, insisting that expanding via opportunities is a key part of encouraging the economic recovery.
The bill is “directly related to getting the economy going again,” Cantor argued, saying the government should encourage higher education students “to stay in this country … [rather than] be forced to go back to their home countries and compete with us.”
Rep. Mario Dias Balart called the bill the “first step in fixing our broken immigration system … it’s immigration and economic recovery in one step.”
“This is the beginning of what we’re going to do for the next two years on immigration,” said Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador.
Rep. Darrell Issa, who will serve on the Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee next year, argued that it has become clear over his dozen years in Congress that comprehensive reforms will prove impossible.
“Doing everything allowed somebody to not like some part of everything,” he said. “We need to break up the elephant into bite size pieces.”
“The Democrats had two years to do something on immigration reform,”
Labrador noted, insisting the failures for a lack of progress rests with Democrats. “Every time we get close to them they try to move the goal posts.”
Whether an economic-themed piecemeal approach can succeed, however, remains unclear.
Aside from a certain subset of workers in agriculture, the thorniest problems facing Congress are not how to make it easier for immigrants in the country legally to remain, but rather what to do with the estimated 13 million illegal workers.
Even reforms to the agriculture visa program would only go so far — Issa estimated proposed changes favored by Republicans could bring some one million workers “out of the shadows” and into the system.
But that leaves some 12 million others. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Obama administration, and activists alike appear dead set on implanting some sort of pathway to citizenship for those persons, and there is little trust amongst those groups that Republicans will tackle that outside a comprehensive framework.
But the climate has grown so toxic, even bills like the STEM measure have become a hotbed for partisan fighting.
Pointing to narrow restrictions on families of immigrants, incoming CHC Chairman Luis V. Gutierrez Friday slammed the legislation, and Republicans.
“That is not America. There was no special line for PhDs and master's degree holders at Ellis Island. There was not an asterisk on the Statue of Liberty that said your IQ must be this high to enter,” said Gutierrez, the son of an immigrant.
“They are saying my father was too stupid to make it. And I resent it. But he put two kids through college and one in the House of Representatives.”
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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