Mexican-American Immigrants Protest in Arizona
Mexican-Americans protest in favor of immigration rights in Arizona in 2012. Immigrants there are fighting for the right to obtain driver's licenses. Reuters

In the first of what could be more postelection votes on immigration legislation, the U.S. House advanced a bill on Thursday that would offer more visas to foreign students.

Representatives voted 243-170 in favor of the STEM Jobs Act, which would provide green cards to foreign students who obtain degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

The legislation will be up for a vote on Friday, but it seems unlikely to surmount opposition from Democrats. Rather than increase the number of total available visas, the bill would compensate for the STEM visas by eliminating a visa lottery aimed at countries with low levels of immigration to the United States.

Many Democrats support the idea of offering foreign students the opportunity to remain in the United States. But instead of creating a STEM visa program, the STEM Jobs Act would force Congress to choose: “Would we rather have a diversity visa concept, or would we rather have a STEM visa concept?" said Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), saying both are useful.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the bill’s primary author, countered that Democrats have “voiced no substantive position” and are holding off in hopes of Congress taking up a broader immigration overhaul. That deprives American businesses of qualified workers, Smith argued.

"The president's position is hurting the economy and hurting the country,” Smith told reporters.

Smith led the effort to push through a similar bill in 2011. He tried unsuccessfully to use a suspension of the rules, a procedure that expedites voting but requires a two-thirds majority.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus endorsed a STEM visa measure in its recent list of principles that should be included in a comprehensive immigration reform bill. But Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) said that Rep. Smith’s bill unfairly favors more educated immigrants at the expense of others.

"In other words, we want to pick immigrants we like, and then eliminate those we don't like, as though some are better than others," Gutierrez said.