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Business Leaders Band Together On Some Aspects Of Immigration Reform


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

President Obama met with business and labor leaders today at the White House. He's trying to build a broad coalition in support of revamping immigration laws. The two sides haven't always seen eye to eye on immigration. But this year, on this issue, they're mostly working together on the issue. We'll hear more in a moment about the evolution of organized labor's position.

But first, NPR's Scott Horsley reports on what's at stake for the business community.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: For businesspeople, a working immigration system is one that produces a dependable supply of employees - whether it's farmhands to harvest lettuce or software programmers to write computer code.

John Feinblatt is with the Partnership for a New American Economy, a group of business leaders and politicians, who say prosperity depends on attracting and keeping the world's best workers.

JOHN FEINBLATT: You know, in the 20th century, success was about access to resources and access to capital. But in the 21st century, it's about access to talent. And we need an immigration system that stresses that.

HORSLEY: Feinblatt says U.S. companies should be allowed to hire more foreign workers with specialized skills, especially if they've trained at American universities in the critical fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

FEINBLATT: If you are a foreign-born graduate of a U.S. university in a stem field, we should be stapling a green card to your diploma. Simple as that.

HORSLEY: But it's not just high-skilled workers at the center of this debate. Farmers say they depend on immigrants for seasonal jobs that American workers won't do.

Kristi Boswell, of the American Farm Bureau Federation, says these seasonal workers are essential and most are undocumented. She says the U.S. can either import more workers or more food.

KRISTI BOSWELL: So really is a lynchpin on keeping our farms and ranches, and fruits and vegetables, especially crops grown here in the United States, so we can ensure a safe food supply.

HORSLEY: Both the president and a bipartisan group of senators want to meet those demands for more legal immigration. In exchange, Obama would ask more from employers to stop people from working illegally.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: To be fair, most businesses want to do the right thing. But a lot of them have a hard time figuring out who's here legally, who's not. So we need to implement a national system that allows businesses to quickly and accurately verify someone's employment status.

DORIS MEISNER: Business people have been asking for that. They've been asking for a long time, for a way to deal with this that is straightforward, responsible.

HORSLEY: Doris Meisner is a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, and a former commissioner of the Immigration Service. She says the government's largely voluntary E-verify system has made it easier for employers to check the legal status of job applicants. But so far, that system lacks biometric information or other means to make sure an applicant is who he says he is.

MEISNER: These are the problems that have to be tackled in an immigration reform in order for employers to have a more reliable way of knowing who they're hiring.

HORSLEY: Companies can afford to be less concerned with the most controversial part of the proposed overhaul, a path to citizenship for immigrants who are here illegally.

Political analyst David Damore, of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says that's why the president and other supporters are determined to keep that part of the plan bundled together, with the other sweeteners.

DAVID DAMORE: The business community has been harping on H1B visa reform for years and years and years. And if you just give them that, then that's less leverage that they might be able to push for comprehensive immigration reform.

HORSLEY: And what would happen to pay scales if millions of illegal workers suddenly were allowed to come out of the shadows? Research by the Public Policy Institute of California suggests high-skilled workers, who've been underemployed, might find more lucrative opportunities. Not so low-skilled immigrants. They'd still be limited to the same low-paying jobs as their native-born co-workers.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.