WASHINGTON (AP) -- Testing the waters of what is expected to be a turbulent battle over immigration policy next year, the House voted Friday to make green cards accessible to foreign students graduating with advanced science and math degrees from U.S. universities.
But even this limited step, strongly backed by the high-tech industry and enjoying some bipartisan support, is unlikely to go anywhere this session of Congress, dramatizing how difficult it will be to find lasting solutions to the nation's much-maligned immigration system.
A more sweeping bill presumably would deal not only with legal residents but also the estimated 11 million people here illegally.
Republicans largely shunned by Hispanic voters and other minorities in the November elections used Friday's 245-139 vote for the STEM Jobs Act to show they have softened their hardline immigration policies and are ready to work for more comprehensive legislation.
GOP leaders also added a provision making it easier for immigrants working in the country legally to bring their spouses and children to the United States while they wait for their visa applications to be approved. Typically, family members now wait more than two years to be reunited. About 80,000 such family-based visas are issued every year.
But for many Democrats and the Obama White House as well, this first step was more of a misstep.
Democrats, including members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, assailed the legislation for offsetting the 55,000 new permanent residency visas by eliminating a program that provided green cards to people with traditionally lower rates of immigration, particularly those from Africa. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The White House, in a statement opposing the GOP-crafted bill, said it was encouraged that Congress "appears to be ready to begin serious debate on the need to fix our broken immigration system." But it said the administration does not support "narrowly tailored proposals" that do not meet long-term objectives of achieving comprehensive reform.
That comprehensive approach includes dealing with the young people brought into the country illegally, establishing a solution for agriculture workers, creating an effective border enforcement system and worker verification program and deciding by what means those living in the country illegally can attain legal status.
The Democratic-controlled Senate is seen as likely to ignore the House STEM bill in the waning days of the current congressional session.
The partisan bickering attending the STEM bill signaled how hard it likely will be to pass more far-reaching immigration legislation. The idea of retaining foreign students with advanced degrees in the STEM fields enjoys wide bipartisan support and has long been sought by high-tech industries that have seen some of their brightest employee prospects being forced to leave the country and work for competitors abroad.
"We should staple a green card to their diplomas," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a proponent of overhauling immigration law. He cited a National Science Foundation study showing that foreign students receive nearly 60 percent of U.S. engineering doctorates and more than 50 percent of doctorates in mathematics and computer science.
"American employers are desperate for qualified STEM workers no matter where they are from," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
But most Democrats balked at what they called the Republicans' "zero sum game" where there is no increase in the number of green cards offered.
The elimination of the Diversity Visa Lottery Program is a "slap in the face to the core value and the position of immigrants to the United States," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a leader on immigration policy with the Hispanic Caucus. "If you support this bill, then you are saying that one type of immigrant is better than the other," he said.
"It pains me greatly to say I can't support this flawed bill," because it ends the diversity program, said Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a strong proponent of STEM visas whose northern California district includes many high-tech companies.
She said the number of green cards issued under the Republican bill would actually decline because there are only about 30,000 foreign graduates every year who would qualify under the bill and the legislation does not allow unused visas to roll over to other programs.
The House voted on a similar STEM Act in September, but it fell short under a procedure requiring a two-thirds majority. It was revived under rules needing only a simple majority. Republicans also tried to attract votes by adding a provision that makes it easier for people with green cards to bring their spouses and children to this country. But this popular concept also ran into Democratic criticism because it stipulates that spouses waiting for their own green cards to be approved cannot work and family members in the country illegally are ineligible.
The STEM Act visas would be in addition to about 140,000 employment-based visas for those ranging from lower-skilled workers to college graduates and people in the arts, education and athletics.
The Diversity Visa Lottery Program, created partly to increase visas for Ireland, has shifted over the years to focus on former Soviet states and now Africa. In 2010, almost 25,000 visas went to Africa; 9,000 to Asia and 16,000 to Europe. Applicants must have at least a high school education.
Critics say the visa lottery program has outlived its purpose because Africans and East Europeans are already benefiting from family unification and skilled employment visas, and the lottery program is subject to fraud and infiltration by terrorists. Lofgren said it was "preposterous" that terrorists would try to get into a country under a program that picks 55,000 people at random out of more than 14 million applicants.
The provision on reuniting families allows the spouses and children of permanent residents to come to the United States to wait for their own green card applications to be processed one year after applying. Currently, family members must wait more than two years before being reunited.