WASHINGTON - The U.S. House approved Republican-backed immigration legislation on Friday that had previously fallen short in September, though Democrats described it as a piecemeal political move by Republicans after their poor election showing among non-white voters.
House Democrats predicted it would fail in the Democratic-controlled Senate, partly due to White House opposition.
The "STEM Jobs Act" would grant as many as 55,000 visas to non-citizens who complete some advanced degrees at U.S. universities in science, technology, engineering, and math.
The measure succeeded 245 to 139, with support from a majority of Republicans as well as 27 Democrats. When advanced in September, the measure was fast-tracked and so required a two-thirds "super majority" for passage and fell short, 257 to 158.
Republicans hailed it as a plus for employers and the economy.
"The bill that we passed will allow these individuals to have a green card if they get a diploma and, therefore, enabling them to stay in this country to begin their careers to create jobs rather than being forced to leave to go back to their home countries and actually compete with us," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said at a news conference.
Sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement, "Many of the world's top students come to the U.S. to obtain advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math subjects. We could boost economic growth and spur job creation by allowing American employers to more easily hire some of the most qualified foreign graduates of U.S. universities. These students have the ability to start a company that creates jobs or come up with an invention that could jump-start a whole new industry."
The Obama administration said Wednesday it is opposed to the measure but did not threaten a veto.
"The administration does not support narrowly tailored proposals that do not meet [President Barack Obama's] long-term objectives with respect to comprehensive immigration reform," a policy statement from the White House said.
The bill does not address broader immigration issues and is seen by some Democrats as a Republican attempt to appeal to non-white voters, who largely sided with Obama over GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Election Day.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Washington, pointedly criticized her "colleagues from the other side of the aisle" on the House floor Friday for not passing an immigration measure when they controlled the House, Senate, and White House earlier in Obama's term. She described the STEM measure as "a piece of the puzzle" and said "we need to take this a piece at a time."
"So let's stop treating this issue like a political football. As the first American of Hispanic descent to represent Washington State here in the United States House, I want us to tackle this issue," she said.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California, pointed in rebuttal to the DREAM Act, which passed the House in December 2010 but failed to overcome the Republican filibuster in the Senate. That proposal would have granted citizenship to some undocumented immigrants brought into the United States at a young age who went on to an American college or the military.
Among her objections to the Republican proposal was that it would reallocate Green Cards, or Resident Alien Cards, from other visa categories, and she advanced a counter-proposal, the "Attracting the Best and Brightest Act of 2012."
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, charged the Republican measure "is racist -- if not in its intent, then certainly in its effect."
"It is alarming that Republican supporters of this bill view immigration as a zero sum gain where we can only grant STEM visas by eliminating Diversity Visas," he said on the House floor.
The Diversity Visa program is tailored toward applicants from "countries with low rates of immigration to the United States" and provides significantly more visas to applicants from African nations than from any other continent, according to the State Department. In the fiscal year 2011, 24,015 of the 51,118 visas went to applicants from Africa.
Rep. Darrell Issa, the Ohio Republican who chairs the Oversight Committee, responded, "I am personally insulted that anyone would use even loosely the term of racism as part of a statement related to merit-based advanced degrees."
"The people graduating and walking across the aisle are extremely diverse," he said. "And I believe the gentleman needs to go to a few college graduations and see masters and PhD candidates if he is going to refer to this in any way as racist."