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STEM legislation includes a deceptive ploy

At first sight, the STEM Jobs Act sponsored and passed by House Republicans this week, seems like a good idea.
Latinos and immigrants participate in a rally on immigration reform in front of the White House on Nov. 8, 2012, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Latinos and immigrants participate in a rally on immigration reform in front of the White House on Nov. 8, 2012, in Washington, D.C.

At first sight, the STEM Jobs Act sponsored and passed by House Republicans this week, seems like a good idea. It’s a step in the right direction toward reforming our broken immigration system. Standing for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the STEM bill would provide green cards to foreign nationals who have earned their Ph.D. or Masters in one of the STEM fields from an American University.

It makes no sense to invite in the best and the brightest foreign students to American universities, yet not allow them to stay in the country to put their knowledge to use.

In the words of Mitt Romney in his address to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials earlier this year:

 “… if you get an advanced degree here, we want you to stay here. So I’d staple a green card to the diploma of someone who gets an advanced degree in America.”

The STEM jobs act would essentially staple green cards to the diplomas of 55,000 foreign students. But, the legislation does not help the millions of undocumented immigrants, mainly of Latin American descent already in this country.

While the issue of Latino undocumented immigration goes untouched by the STEM Act that is not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that Republicans are even discussing the overall issue of immigration could be seen as a good thing—it’s a toe in the door.

Well, not so fast. There is one part of the STEM bill that Republicans aren’t as quick to tout: the abolition of the Diversity Visa program. House Republicans giveth, and House Republicans taketh away. The 55,000 annual STEM visas that they want to make available come at the cost of 55,000 annual Diversity Visas.

The removal of this class of visas puts us on a dangerous slippery slope toward a restrictive racially and ethnically based quota immigration system, such as those in place for half of the 20th Century.

Commonly known as the Green Card Lottery, the Diversity Visa program was implemented under the 1990 Legal Immigration and Reform. Currently 55,000 green cards are made available to individuals from areas of the world with low rates of immigration to the United States, including for example, Africa. The Diversity Visa seeks to provide individuals that do not fall into the immigration preference categories of either family reunification or specialty-skilled employees (over 90% of visa allocations) a shot at the American dream.

Up until 1965 our immigration system was based on a national origins quota and on the outright exclusion of certain groups. From 1880 to the early 1940s Asian immigration, and in particular, Chinese immigration was prohibited.  Building on the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the late 1800s, nativist political forces in the post-WWI era further limited who could come to the United States.  The National Origins Quota Laws of 1921 and 1924 restricted immigration of southern and eastern Europeans to all but a trickle.

The rationale for the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the quota laws were explicitly racist. These groups were considered of inferior cognitive and moral character. The passage of the quota laws was even buttressed by research from the Eugenics movement specifically the Dillingham Commission’s Report to Congress.

Excuses of moral and cognitive deficiencies along with an innate lack of work ethic were used to sort out the desirable immigrants from the undesirables. But ultimately, the reasons were underpinned by perceptions of economic competition and negative racial antipathies drummed up by nativist groups such as the Know-Nothings.

It was not until the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act of 1965 that our immigration system turned away from exclusionary criteria and transitioned to one focused on family reunification. Our current immigration system is guided by family reunification and also skill-based employment visas.

Of course our immigration system needs to be selective. In particular, there are certain skills sets that our country should actively seek to select on, such as STEM fields. But a narrow focus on STEM immigrants to the exclusion of those who would come under a Diversity Visa is a little too reminiscent of the national origins quota laws.

Diversity Visas account for only a fraction of all visas that are granted.  However, they are key to ensuring that a de facto quota exclusion of people from “undesirable” regions does not materialize.

STEM immigration and diversity immigration is not and should not be mutually exclusive. However, House Republicans seek to make it so. Starting down a path of exclusion does not put us on the path to a more general immigration reform.  Quite the contrary--it sets up back behind the starting line.

This column first appeared on NBC Latino.