For immigration reform, common ground is essential

In his State of the Union address, President Obama said immigration reform will help grow the economy because "when people come here to fulfill their dreams – to study, invent, and contribute to our culture – they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone."

As the daughter of Mexican immigrants who has realized the American dream, I couldn't agree more. But the longer we wait to act, the harder it gets as entrenched interests dig in for the 2014 midterm election cycle.

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I am encouraged by reports that House Republicans are strongly considering a pathway to legal status for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. But if all else fails I believe the "piecemeal" approach holds great promise if members of both parties are willing to set aside differences on the most contentious aspects of immigration policy and focus on where there is common ground.

For example, provisions enabling more skilled workers to enter the U.S. on temporary visas while putting them on the path to earned citizenship have won broad support in both the House and Senate.  As Rep.Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.) said in the GOP State of the Union response, the Republican immigration reform principles will include "[M]aking sure America will always attract the best, brightest, and hardest working from around the world."

Expanding the talent pool available to U.S. employers is crucial to addressing the "skills gap" we face in this country. According to the 2013 Bayer Facts of Science Education survey of 150 talent recruiters at Fortune 1000 companies, only half reported they could fill job openings with qualified science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers in a timely manner. Of those who said they could not find enough qualified candidates, 90% reported they believe it is because there is a shortage of STEM workers with the requisite skills.

U.S. employers can't afford to stand still – they must be able to hire the best talent they can find, wherever they can find it, in order to remain competitive. Just look at our friends to the north in Canada, who are busy attempting to poach high-tech workers from Silicon Valley, even putting up billboards on Highway 101 urging workers experiencing visa delays to "Pivot to Canada."

While there are critical differences to be resolved, there is no reason why Congress can't begin to move forward on expanding access to visas for skilled workers while making it easier for them to earn their green cards. The Senate-passed and House Judiciary bills each raise the current restrictive cap on skilled worker visas under the H-1B program, which generally becomes over-subscribed within days. Both measures also include provisions that would increase the number of visa workers able to obtain green cards.

There are other provisions that are harmful to U.S. competiveness and should be removed from a final compromise on high-skilled workers. The Senate bill in particular contains a number of onerous and arbitrary restrictions on certain U.S. employers deemed to be "dependent" on high-skilled worker visas. Companies meeting this threshold would be barred from sending H-1B workers to client sites to provide information technology services, seriously disrupting the day-to-day operations of U.S. firms in sectors ranging from financial services to telecommunications to biotechnology/life sciences. Moreover, these employers could be prohibited from hiring additional H-1B workers, while filing fees to petition for additional skilled workers will increase substantially.

The result of these burdensome and costly requirements will be that companies shift IT jobs overseas, pass the costs on to consumers, or both. And since most of the companies who will likely fall into the thresholds set by the Senate bill are based in India, the Senate approach risks a costly trade war with one of the largest emerging markets for U.S. goods and services. But given the broad support for skilled worker visa reform in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle, there's no reason why Congress can't come together on this issue.

It is time to write the next chapter in our great American story. Congress must put aside its differences and find common ground to fix our broken immigration system, whether it's one step at a time or a comprehensive solution. As President Obama said Tuesday night, "I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America."

Marin was the Treasurer of the United States, 2001-2003, and is the current Executive Director of the American Competitiveness Alliance.

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