Why Congress Might Kill the Most Obvious Policy Idea in America

Handing green cards to science and engineering Ph.D.'s is common sense. But it's now caught up in a partisan battle over a separate corner of the immigration system.

America, this is why we can't have nice things.

The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a bill today that would enact perhaps the single most common sense policy idea currently kicking around Washington. The legislation would give green cards to foreigners who graduate with advanced science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) degrees from American universities. These are people we are already paying to educate, at least once you take into account the massive public subsidies that fund our entire higher ed system. They have skills, smarts, and ambition we desperately need in this country. And yet we're currently showing them the door once they've picked up their diplomas.

This should an easy score for Congress -- a roaring, LeBron-like slam dunk on one of those plastic Fisher Price basketball hoops they make for toddlers. Instead, it appears the bill is about to become the subject of a partisan legislative battle.

What, you expected otherwise?

The controversy surrounds a big tradeoff the House GOP has carved in the legislation that's predictably soured their Democratic colleagues. In return for letting about 55,000 new STEM grads stay in the country each year, it would kill off a program that annually hands out the same number of green cards via a random lottery to citizens of countries that don't traditionally send us large numbers of immigrants . Democrats don't look willing to take the deal. As the New York Times noted yesterday, of the 51 sponsors on the House legislation, only one is from the left side of the aisle. A group of Hispanic, Asian, and Black congressmen circulated a letter opposing the bill, arguing it was a "zero-sum approach" that would "rob Peter of his visa so Paul can wait in a shorter line...."

New York's Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, meanwhile, has introduced a parallel piece of legislation that would create a 2-year pilot green card program for science and tech grads without nixing the so-called diversity visas.

Thus, a consensus issue has been split down party lines. As a result, it might not even make it through the House, where it will take a two-thirds majority to pass under the special procedure that's being used to bring it to a vote.

In fairness to the GOP, the diversity visa program has its share of problems. Created in 1990, it randomly selects applicants from qualified countries who either have the equivalent of a high school education and at least two years of work experience in a job the requires training. They don't need to have any family here in the states, prospects for employment, or special skills. But as the Government Accountability Office noted in a lengthy 2007 report, even the bare minimum qualifications can be hard to enforce. Although the lottery winners are subject to an extensive background check before they can receive their green card, applicants often submit fake documents, frequently with the help of corrupt local officials. The State Department, meanwhile, has cautioned that such frauds could open the door to national security problems, since the program admits citizens of countries that sponsor terrorism, such as Iran.

Although there's no actual evidence that rogue states are using the diversity program to funnel terrorists into our borders, these are sincere concerns that should be addressed. But why now? Conservatives have had their sites on the diversity visa program for a while. What's the policy rationale of letting this particular fight potentially sink an idea that everyone otherwise agrees would be good for the country?

To get an explanation, I called up the House Judiciary Committee, where one of the aides spoke to me on background. Theey explained that committee chair Lamar Smith of Texas, "did not want to increase legal immigration at a time when 8 percent of Americans are unemployed."

Bad answer. Right now, jobs might be scarce. But over the long term, as the Baby Boomers beginning to retire, the United States will need more young immigrants to come here so they can work and pay  taxes. Moreover, it's a bit nutty to suggest that engineering Ph.D.'s are competing in the same job market as high school grads from, say, Chad. You might think that by limiting the number of low-skill immigrants, we'll open up opportunities for unemployed Americans. But that has nothing to do with the number of science grads kicking around into the country.

From policy perspective, then, there's really no reason these two programs should be mentioned in the same breath, other than that they both involve the word "immigrant.' Yet, if I were a congressional Democrat, I'd still accept the Republicans' offer. While the long-term aim should be to welcome more immigrants to the country, the GOP authored bill doesn't cut the number down. And while some may worry at sealing off an avenue for immigration permanently, it's a flawed avenue that could be made up for by expanding other programs if we ever get a comprehensive immigration reform bill one day. Keeping more foreign science whizzes on our shores would be a worthwhile upgrade.

But should we expect compromise from either side on this? You tell me.