Chamber of Commerce, Bloomberg Push Immigration Reform

New York mayor teams with U.S. Chamber to push for immigration reform for top workers, entrepreneurs.

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are pushing what they see as a bipartisan way to create jobs and improve the nation's economic outlook: attract and keep highly skilled immigrant workers and entrepreneurs. In a forum Wednesday morning, Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue said many people assume immigrants take jobs, but they actually create them—and can contribute to United States competitiveness in the future. "If we don't keep the skilled people in this country after they are educated in our universities and our institutions," Donohue said, "companies have a simple choice: If we can't get them here and they go somewhere else, we send the work to where they are."

Bloomberg, in his keynote speech at the forum, added that increased government spending and budget cutting won't prevent a double-dip recession; only economic growth will. And skilled immigrants spur that growth, he said. "In today's global marketplace, we cannot afford to keep turning away those with skills that our country needs to grow and to succeed," Bloomberg said. "It is sabotaging our economy. I've called it national suicide, and I think it really is."

[Check out a roundup of political cartoons on immigration reform.]

Bloomberg sees the plan as political middle ground for Democrats and Republicans eyeing elections at a time when repeated attempts at immigration reform over the past decade have stagnated. He said it would not be a panacea, but would create jobs and strengthen the economy.

He counters the charge that an increase in skilled immigrants would mean fewer jobs for Americans. "There is no such thing as too many engineers, too many scientists, or too many technological innovators. We need all of them in this country," he said, adding that foreign-born experts in science, technology, engineering, and math fields can provide a way out of the unemployment ditch the United States. finds itself in.

First, Bloomberg said, the United States must expand the number of green cards available to "the best of the best" high-skilled workers. These workers can start businesses and provide valuable knowledge of foreign markets, he said.

Second, Bloomberg and the Chamber want an easy, clear path for foreign students earning advanced degrees in the United States to get green cards. "Turning students out of the country is, to put it bluntly, about the dumbest thing we could possibly do," Bloomberg said, complaining about the uncertain and arduous process in place now. "Other countries are bending over backwards to attract these students, and we're helping them to do it. We've become the laughingstock of the world with this policy."

Third would be a conditional visa program for entrepreneurs who have the capital to back their business plans, giving legal status to those whose businesses grow and create jobs for Americans. "America already has some of the most enterprising individuals on earth. But entrepreneurs are like engineering Ph.D.s and computer scientists," Bloomberg said. "You just can't have enough of them."

[Read: After 9/11, Immigration Became About Homeland Security.]

And finally, the fourth piece of the plan would be to proactively attract talented workers to the country. Bloomberg suggests one way to do this is to loosen up visa restrictions and caps, including the cap on the number of H-1B visas—those for highly-skilled workers—and the quotas for employment visas based on country. H-1B visas often run out before the end of the year, leaving tech companies struggling to hire engineers and other technical employees. This year, the Department of Homeland Security already had overwhelmingly more than enough applicants to fill its 65,000 cap by January. "This is just absurd to deny American companies access to the workers they need, Bloomberg said. "The government doesn't know how many skilled workers are needed each year. Only the market does. So let the markets work."

Other countries like China, Israel, and Chile are already working hard to attract intellectual capital and the financial capital that follows, he said, adding that this means the United States must compete more than ever before. "The global economy is changing everything. People and resources are moving more freely than ever before," Bloomberg said. "As a result, America no longer is the inevitable crossroads for enterprise and innovation."