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US Business Leaders Argue for Immigration Reform

U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposed comprehensive immigration reform remains stalled in a politically divided Congress, but business leaders around the country say immigration reform is needed to keep the economy growing. The situation was the focus of a recent business forum in Houston.

In recent years, thousands of the world’s best and brightest people have been denied H1-B visas that are issued to immigrants with special skills or education.

Former governor of New Mexico and U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson says the system needs to change, “so that skilled workers, engineers, computer specialists that are here on student visas, can stay and create jobs in the American economy."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations favor a large expansion of H1-B visas especially for talented people from around the world who study at U.S. universities on student visas, but cannot stay after they graduate.

The ones who do stay are in high demand, according to Massey Villareal, president of Precision Task Group in Houston.

“We spend over $30,000 a month just on recruiting costs, just trying to find these employees, so my clients are asking for highly qualified skill sets that I have a hard time finding, and then when I find them, my competitor offers them $10,000 a year more and they are gone," said Villareal.

Last year, 172,000 petitions for H1-B visas were filed, but current law allows for only 85,000 each year.

Attorney Charles Foster headed a task force on immigration for the Greater Houston Partnership.

“It is a dysfunctional system; one day a year you can petition for the brightest people in the world, and then you have a 30 percent chance," he said.

Many pro-reform business executives are Republicans, but Foster says the party’s immigration policy is controlled by the Tea Party movement.

“Their anger, their opposition, is mostly based upon rumor and anecdotal stuff that has little to do with the truth. When you get before them and explain what real immigration reform means, they have a very different position," he said.

Still, most conservatives remain opposed on principle to any reform that would provide what they see as amnesty for people who entered the country illegally.

Bill Richardson, a Democrat, says his party is right to insist on legalization, as well as a pathway to citizenship.

“We need to bring the 11 million undocumented workers that are currently in this country out of the shadows; make them productive players in the U.S. economy," he said.

Republicans in Congress favor a bill that would increase the number of H1-B visas for skilled workers and leave the larger reform package for later.

But Democrats reject that, saying it should be part of an overall reform that would open the door to citizenship to those living here illegally, and that stalemate, according to studies done by business groups, is costing the nation tens of thousands of jobs as well as a more competitive edge in the world economy.