Measure would eliminate the 'lottery visa,' shift visas to foreign college grads
A bill introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, earlier this month would increase the number of visas available to people with math and science degrees and eliminate a decades-old program that gives people from around the world what could be their only opportunity to come to the country legally.
A visa allows foreign people to enter the country legally. Under the proposed legislation, foreign students, who are here on a temporary basis, would be allowed to stay permanently if they find work with a U.S. employer.
The bill, House Resolution 43, would reallocate the 55,000 visas available under the so-called Diversity Visa program to employment-based immigration programs for immigrants with advanced degrees from U.S. universities.
The Diversity Visa program awards visas to random applicants from all over the globe.
Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa, said the congressman believes it makes more sense to give the visas to people with degrees who have more to contribute to the American economy than random people.
"This is a better approach," Hill said.
While the idea of increasing the number of visas for highly educated immigrants is a good one, it should not come at the expense of another good program, said Matt Holt, a San Diego immigration lawyer and a spokesman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
"Our immigration system should not be a zero-sum game," Holt said. "We need it to be more flexible."
The Diversity Visa, also known as the "visa lottery" because applicants are chosen randomly, offers people from countries that traditionally do not send many immigrants to the U.S. an opportunity to come here regardless of their work skills, family ties or employment opportunities.
"First and foremost, the Diversity Visa demonstrates the U.S. commitment to having a pluralistic society to help strengthen the nation's fabric," Holt said.
In general, there are only four ways foreigners can get permission to move to the United States: They can be sponsored by an American citizen relative or, in some cases, a legal resident relative; they can be sponsored by an employer; they can claim refugee or asylum status; or they can win a visa lottery.
The visa lottery is only for residents of countries that aren't already sending large numbers of people here. Typically, Africans and Eastern Europeans receive the bulk of the visas. People from India, Brazil, Canada, China and Mexico are among those who are ineligible for the Diversity Visa.
The number of visas given out is set by Congress; the last adjustment was more than a decade ago. The basic framework was put into place in 1965.
In recent years, Republicans have launched numerous efforts to scrap the program, calling it a leftover from a bygone era, a threat to the nation's security, and riddled with fraud.
"The fact is, those of us that serve the American people should support policies that serve the American people first and the immigrants second," said Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Solana Beach.
Bilbray, who is chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus ---- Congress members who advocate for stricter immigration enforcement ---- was the co-sponsor of a similar bill introduced by Issa in 2008. He called the Diversity Visa program an "anachronism." Bilbray's bill and others have died in committee.
In 2005, the House voted 273-148 to eliminate the diversity program as part of House Resolution 4437. The bill was touted as a border-protection, anti-terrorism, illegal-immigration control measure. The House and Senate failed to reach a compromise, and the bill died.
This year's bill may advance in the Republican-controlled House but would face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Democrats hold the majority, Holt said.
While he doesn't agree with Issa's approach, Holt said he was pleased that the bill recognizes the positive contributions immigrants make to the nation.
"I'm glad that Congressman Issa's bill is moving the debate in the right direction, recognizing the economic value immigrants bring" to the economy, Holt said.
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