The important topic of immigration reform has been a major focus of news coverage lately, both nationally and in Utah. I have been especially interested in recent reports of what has been portrayed as a rift between Sen. Orrin Hatch, who is a key player in the immigration debate at the national level, and Utah business leaders, represented by Utah chambers of commerce.
As I have interacted with both Hatch and business leaders on this issue, my impression is that much more unity and common ground exists than has been portrayed.
I agree with the chamber leaders' assertion that Congress needs to move expeditiously on this key issue so important to a vibrant economy, both nationally and in Utah. Immigration is an important federal responsibility, and lack of resolution has hurt many industries, especially agriculture and the high-tech sectors. I have been pleased to see Utah business leaders step up and request responsible action by Congress.
Hatch has been a leader on immigration reform, especially on key issues important to business. Very recently, major news media reported that he helped broker a deal with Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Marco Rubio, and Michael Bennet to create a new agriculture guest-worker visa program as part of comprehensive immigration reform. This agreement to increase the number of farm workers has been praised by both unions and business groups. It includes three key provisions on farm worker wage levels, caps on agricultural guest worker visas, and protections for U.S. workers.
In addition, earlier this year Hatch introduced the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013 (commonly called I-squared), with the backing of a bipartisan group of 24 senators, to bring greatly-needed reforms to the nation's immigration laws for high-skilled workers. It would allow more American-trained foreign workers to remain in the United States and build our economy, helping the United States stay competitive globally.
The I2 bill increases the maximum limit to 300,000 H-1B visas for the private sector, plus an exemption for graduates of U.S. universities with advanced degrees. It continues an exemption for research and nonprofit institutions. If the bill is passed, it is likely that more than 400,000 H-1B visas would be granted per year. The labor market desperately needs these workers. Because the H-1B visa is renewable for a total of six years, the bill could add more than 2 million new high-tech workers to bolster the nation's economy.
Hatch has indicated he wants to understand the various immigration reform proposals being discussed, and he has expressed concern about voting on a comprehensive package before it has been adequately studied and scrutinized. He has requested that comprehensive immigration reform be considered through "regular order," or the usual committee process, to ensure transparency and sufficient evaluation.
Immigration reform is so important that it makes sense to give lawmakers enough time to evaluate the ramifications of the various components of comprehensive legislation.
As a Utah business person, I'm extremely pleased that broad-based immigration reform is going forward. I encourage Utahns to write their members of Congress to encourage them to act. I appreciate the leadership of Hatch on this issue, and also the many other Utah leaders who are united on this important public policy issue.
A. Scott Anderson is president and CEO of Zions First National Bank.