The Absurd STEM Act Holdup

A blog about business and economics.
Nov. 29 2012 9:26 AM

The Absurd STEM Act Holdup

About the closest thing to an uncontroversial idea you'll find in Washington is that America would benefit from issuing more work permits to people with advanced degrees in technical fields. Yet even in the absence of disagreement on the subject, we're finding a way to not get it done. The key legislative vehicle is Representative Lamar Smith of Texas' STEM Jobs Act which you should think of as a clever effort to find a means of getting Democrats to oppose something they favor.

Smith's bill would create 55,000 new visa slots for these degree holders. Why only 55,000? Well because as Elise Foley explains, that's the exact number of visas currently issued by the diversity lottery program which Smith wants to eliminate to offset the influx of engineers.

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The diversity visas "go toward would-be immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S." and Democrats tend to like them. So by including this poison pill elimination of the diversity visas, Smith has succeeded in prompting Democratic opposition to his bill. The White House released a statement of administration policy yesterday opposing Smith's bill, citing the diversity visa bit and saying that even though the administration "strongly supports legislation to attract and retain foreign students who graduate with advanced STEM degrees" it thinks this vehicle undermines the cause of comprehensive reform.

In addition to ensuring that the bill won't pass, linking the STEM issue to the diversity visa issue ends up imposing an odd quantitative cap on high-skill migration. The diversity visa program simply doesn't issue very many visas. For all the reasons that 55,000 STEM visas would be good, triple that would be even better. But to get that you need to abandon the conceit that new highly skilled migrants need to somehow 1:1 offset other immigrants.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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