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Immigrants, representing vastly different segments of society from high-tech workers to farmers, families crouched in the shadows to college-bound students should be protected from the vagaries of deportation.
That was the clear pronouncement Wednesday from Sen. Orrin Hatch a politician who has at times waffled on delicate immigration details under pressure from the Republican Party's recalcitrant wing.
Speaking to wealthy Zions Bank clients and business leaders at a downtown Salt Lake City luncheon, Hatch signaled his support for several key elements of the comprehensive immigration-reform bill while outlining looser restrictions for visas that he says will strengthen the overall law. "I believe it's crucial for us to pass an immigration bill," Hatch said. "Most of these folks are good people. They're decent, hard working, religious. They're willing to pay the price and work hard. Most of them are entrepreneurial. It's time we do this. I want it to be right, though."
Speaking to reporters after the address, Hatch praised the Obama administration for taking strides and doing a "good job" on securing the border and he said the bill's proposed 13-year path to citizenship is "not much different" than the time line for legal immigrants who play by the rules. Hatch said Sen. Mike Lee's opposition to a comprehensive bill is a legitimate position, adding quickly, "he may come around."
"Senator Lee would like to see immigration problems solved piece by piece," Hatch said. "That's just not the way it's going to get done. He's a thoughtful guy… and so am I. It could be done piecemeal, but not with the current Congress. This [comprehensive legislation] is the way it's got to be done."
Down to work • The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin debate May 9 on the 844-page bill created by the bipartisan "gang of eight."
Hatch will push key provisions he helped author that incorporate high-skilled workers and an agriculture guest-worker program to be included in the final version.
Among the highlights:
• Floating 115,000 to 300,000 visas for immigrants trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
• Removing the visa cap on U.S. advanced degrees and eliminating annual per-country limits.
• Increasing worker mobility by establishing a grace period during which foreign workers can change jobs.
• Authorizing employment for dependent spouses of visa holders.
• Allowing dual intent for foreign students to provide certainty they need to ensure their future in the U.S.
Hatch said his so-called I-Squared Act has 26 bipartisan co-sponsors and more than 60 companies including Microsoft, Facebook, Intel, Oracle, Hewlet-Packard and overstock.com on board.
"At least right now, there are not enough Americans trained in order to fill these [high tech] jobs," he said. "We're losing some of the top minds in the world because of the stupid immigration approach we take."
What's more, Hatch argued that 100 foreign-born workers with high-tech training create 262 jobs for native-born people. "That's something we shouldn't pass up."
Hatch called it "pathetic" that recent visa quotas for high-skilled workers were filled in five days.
And he noted 40,000 highly educated immigrants were offered U.S. jobs but are "out of luck" because they can't get a visa.
Framing a plan • For weeks, Hatch has huddled with agriculture groups, unions and key senators, including Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, to frame a "Blue Card Program" for agriculture workers who want to remain working in the United States. "I've had people in Utah, farmers in Utah, who've said 'I can't harvest my crops without undocumented workers. I just can't do it,' " the senator said. "This is an important issue and we've got to find a solution for it."
Roberto Maturana, a West Valley City resident working on publishing a new magazine for Utah's Latino community, said Hatch is "very sharp at identifying the needs of Latinos." But Maturana lamented the lack of Latino representation at Wednesday's speech. "How can we share with people in the community what he's doing if we don't have people here?"
John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, praised Hatch for introducing important provisions that target key groups impacted by the immigration debate. "We can't ignore 11 million people," he said.
And Wester said Hatch's remarks suggest the only solution for meaningful immigration reform is a comprehensive approach.
"The political winds seem to be shifting that way," Wester said. "And I just hope we can ride that wave toward comprehensive immigration reform."