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University Leaders, CEOs, Press for Piecemeal Immigration Law

October 05, 2011

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Oct. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Businesses seeking more high-skilled labor must separate a drive for more foreign-worker visas from a broad -- and stymied -- Washington debate about overhauling U.S. immigration law, corporate executives and university presidents said at a roundtable discussion.

“We need to unbundle it to the extent that we can from this comprehensive immigration reform,” John Lechleiter, chief executive officer of Eli Lilly & Co., said at today’s event sponsored by Harvard University and the Business Roundtable and hosted by Bloomberg News in Washington. “That’s a big, tough issue, but as soon it gets bundled up in there, everybody kind of throws up their hands and says, ‘What do we do?’ And then nothing gets done.”

The Indianapolis-based drugmaker’s top executive said an expansion of the nation’s cap on employment-based “green cards” is among the changes needed to give corporations more flexibility to compete internationally.

In a discussion about the immigration challenges facing businesses and the U.S. universities that train many of their future workers, panel participants also spoke of the need to reframe the debate.

Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, said advocates for more legal immigration must do a better job of telling stories about the way foreign workers are helping to reshape the economy.

Helping Average Families

“We start with these stories about the impact on science and technology,” he said. He said supporters also need to underscore how that translates into economic improvements that benefit “the average American family.”

The corporate quest for more immigration to address workforce needs has stalled in Washington, with the public more focused on the estimated 10 million people in the country illegally.

Republicans, who control the U.S. House, say border security must improve before other immigration-law changes are considered. At the same time, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas and some other Republicans say workers who come to the U.S. from other countries can crowd out Americans seeking jobs in the troubled economy.

Pressure remains on Republican politicians to avoid taking stances that aid illegal immigrants. Texas Governor Rick Perry saw a Republican voter backlash to his bid for the party’s presidential nomination after he defended the idea of allowing children of illegal immigrants to attend Texas universities at in-state tuition rates.

More Visas

The business agenda calls for increases in worker visas for skilled and unskilled labor, and more employment-based green cards -- proof of permanent residency in the U.S. that can allow for a lifetime career.

Among participants in the panel, there was some disagreement about the extent to which a more piecemeal approach that focuses on higher-skilled workers is proper.

John Engler, president and CEO of the Business Roundtable, said it would be tough to get political support for measures that address such matters as increasing the limit on H-1b visas for highly skilled workers. In the Capitol, many lawmakers want to retain that issue as part of a wider rewrite of immigration law because it can help attract bipartisan support for their efforts, he said.

“That’s the loss leader on the comprehensive bill, and nobody will let it loose,” Engler said. He also said there are some broader economic benefits in dealing with lower-skilled and undocumented workers.

‘Business as Usual’

Some executives, though, said that approach won’t break the stalemate.

“You’re talking business as usual, at a time where we’re having a crisis,” said Bill Green, chairman of Accenture Plc of Dublin, the world’s second-largest technology-consulting company. “The sausage-making process of getting an outcome I think puts us at a huge disadvantage.”

James Goodnight, chief executive officer of SAS Institute Inc., said his company would benefit from a boost in a 20,000 cap on visas for foreign workers with master’s degrees.

“I would add 5,000 and see if we can absorb that many,” said Goodnight, whose Cary, North Carolina, company is the world’s biggest privately owned software maker. “And then see if we can add another 5,000.”

Path to Citizenship

One path to passage of the changes sought might be to attach legislation boosting the flow of skilled workers to an existing measure providing a way to citizenship for children of some illegal immigrants, said John Hennessy, president of Stanford University in California. Called the “Dream Act,” such a bill is being pushed by Democrats, who control the U.S. Senate.

“Comprehensive reform is terrific,” Hennessy said. “It’s going to take a long, long time for this country to deal with this. We ought to take this easy piece of it and staple that to some version of the Dream Act and really solve the problem for these highly educated, incredibly capable people” who are essential to the economy.

Earlier at the Washington event, a White House official voiced some support for simply addressing the skilled-worker needs of technology-based companies.

John Holdren, a science adviser to President Barack Obama, said the White House aims to ease the road for high-skilled workers to attain legal status in the U.S. While some foreign students who attend university in the country will want to go home, others may seek to work here, he said.

‘Make It Easy’

“Those who want to stay here, we want to make it easy,” Holdren said. When Green said the Obama administration should take “smaller bites” instead of pursuing a complete overhaul of immigration policy, Holdren said officials “would like to get the high-tech part done if we can.”

More broadly, some academics on the panel said the U.S. will lose a competitive advantage if immigrant students don’t see prospects for better treatment.

Susan Hockfield, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, said the U.S. can no longer rely on a reputation as the “most exciting place to work” to keep foreign students from taking their diplomas elsewhere.

“There are a lot of interesting places for these young people to make their careers,” Hockfield said. “And if we continue to treat them with the kind of disrespect and a lack of welcoming policies, we are going to lose a source of MIT’s great innovation strength” and an engine for job-creating businesses.

--With reporting by Kristin Jensen and Allison Fitzgerald in Washington. Editors: Mark McQuillan, Robin Meszoly.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura Litvan in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at

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