While unlikely to become law, the Republican-backed legislation is the latest front in the battle over U.S. immigration reform. Analysts say it foreshadows more deadlock on the politically charged issue in 2013.
By a 245-139 vote in the Republican-controlled House, lawmakers on November 30 backed the plan to reserve 55,000 permanent-residence visas, or green cards, for foreign graduates of U.S. universities with master's or Ph.D. degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math.
Doing this would mean eliminating the Diversity Visa Program, or green-card lottery, which awards the same number of permanent visas annually to randomly selected applicants from countries with lower rates of immigration, including African and former Soviet countries.
Both Republicans and Democrats say they favor helping foreigners with high-tech skills remain in the United States to help drive innovation.
Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas who introduced the so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) bill, said the legislation would do just that.
"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," he said in a speech ahead of the vote.
The U.S. technology lobby has also backed the bill.
'A Slap In The Face'
Nonetheless, Democratic lawmakers have cried foul, arguing that the legislation sidesteps efforts at comprehensive immigration reform and discriminates against lower-skilled immigrants who serve a vital role in the U.S. economy.
Luis Gutierrez, a representative from Illinois, called the bill's provisions "a slap in the face to the core values and the rich tradition of immigrants to the United States of America."
"There was no special line for Ph.D.s and master's-degree-holders at Ellis Island," he said. "There was no asterisk on the Statue of Liberty that said your IQ must be here and higher [to enter]."
Ahead of the vote, the White House said it did not support the bill's "narrowly tailored proposals."
The legislation is considered to be dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Audrey Singer, an expert on U.S. immigration policy at the Brookings Institution, suggests that, if this bill is any indication, the congressional deadlock over immigration reform could very well continue in 2013.
"This bill was not a bipartisan bill -- it was sponsored by Republicans," she says. "And I think that to have success going forward for a bill like this or any kind of [immigration] reform that we're going to see over the next year or so, we really need both sides to come to the table ahead of time and present something that is acceptable to both. Otherwise, it's just going to be back to where we started."
Immigration reform was a hot-button issue in the 2012 presidential election campaign, in which Hispanics and other minorities strongly favored U.S. President Barack Obama.
The president has pledged to make tackling the issue one of his key second-term priorities. Democrats support legislation to put many of the more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the country on a path to citizenship.
Republicans, meanwhile, face pressure to show minority voters and others that they, too, are serious about immigration reform. They have recently argued that focusing on narrower pieces of legislation is more likely to achieve results than waiting for a grand bipartisan bargain.
Starting in 1995, the U.S. green-card lottery has awarded permanent-residence visas to a small fraction of the millions of applicants who apply each year. There were more than 12.5 million applicants, including family members and spouses, for the fiscal year 2013.
To be eligible, a person must have a high-school diploma or two years of recent experience in a field that requires two years of training. Critics who say the lottery is no longer needed argue that immigrants have other means to come to the United States, such as through family unification and skilled-employment visas.
Jyldyz Abylkasymova, a Kyrgyz-born accountant in Washington, won a green card in the 2007 lottery. She cites her own story in arguing against scrapping the process.
"I think it's not fair," she says. "For example, I came here with my bachelor's degree from Bishkek and I'm studying now. I will hopefully get my master's degree and [become a certified public accountant] in a couple years. [Winning the green-card lottery] changed our lives, definitely, because in Kyrgyzstan, if you don't have the last name of someone who's a [government] minister, you cannot easily find a job. It was very important, especially for my son's future. For my future, too."
Singer says that beyond the current legislation, the green-card lottery is "a piece of U.S. immigration policy that lawmakers have been eyeing for some time."
It could be modified as part of future deals, she adds.