WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bill to create a permanent visa program for foreigners with advanced science and technical degrees cleared the House of Representatives on Friday, the latest salvo in the broader fight over U.S. immigration reform.
The Republican-backed measure would reserve 55,000 permanent residence visas for foreign graduates of U.S. universities with master's and doctoral degrees in the "STEM" disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.
Many Democrats including President Barack Obama oppose the bill because it would eliminate an existing program, often called the green card lottery, which provides visas to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.
The bill passed 245-139 in the Republican-controlled House, largely along party lines. But Democrats control the Senate, and a similar bill there has little chance of passing this year.
Texas Republican Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who introduced the "STEM Jobs Act," said the high-tech visa program would help the United States retain U.S.-trained workers to spur innovation and job creation.
"In a global economy, we cannot afford to educate these foreign graduates in the U.S. and then send them back home to work for our competitors," Smith said.
Democrats argued that the bill unfairly pits lower-skilled immigrants against those with more education and qualifications in the battle for visas.
"Talk about picking winners and losers," said Representative Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who chairs the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
"There was no special line for PhD's and master's degree holders at Ellis Island. There was no asterisk on the Statue of Liberty that said your IQ must be this high to enter."
Democrats, emboldened by strong support from Hispanics and other minorities in the November 6 election, are pushing for comprehensive immigration reform legislation.
Reporting by Alina Selyukh and Richard Cowan; Editing by Xavier Briand