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Washington • Rep. Jason Chaffetz has signed on to a new immigration bill that would help small business owners secure permanent resident status, part of his drive to reform the nation's system of visas and green cards.

Chaffetz, R-Utah, is the lead Republican sponsor on a bill introduced Thursday by Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers, which has no bearing on undocumented immigrants and doesn't boost the number of available green cards.

What their bill would do is allow entrepreneurs born overseas to sponsor themselves for employment-based green cards as long as they are highly educated and can prove that their business has employed at least five people for the past four years. Under current law, these green cards, providing permanent resident status, are only available to people sponsored by a company.

"They have to demonstrate they have a job, but what if they actually own the business?" Chaffetz said. "We think this will affect thousands of people every year."

Conyers, who brought the issue to Chaffetz, said: "Currently, our immigration system provides green cards to those who fill jobs in the American economy, but not to those who create jobs. This makes no sense."

Their proposal has the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Small Business Association.

Chaffetz opposes calls for a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which he said has turned into "a buzzword for amnesty," but since his first campaign in 2008, has called for reforming the legal immigration system, which is plagued with long backlogs and strict quotas.

"If you can fix legal immigration, you can provide a legitimate pathway for people who are playing by the rules," he said.

"That should be our goal first and foremost."

Last November, the House overwhelmingly passed another bipartisan immigration bill led by Chaffetz that sought to make it easier for companies to recruit international talent from nations that regularly ran out of visas.

That bill removes the per-country caps on skilled laborer visas, though it didn't increase the number available. Essentially, it would allow the federal government to transfer unused visas from one country's total to another nation that has used its allotment.

The Senate has yet to act on that legislation.

mcanham@sltrib.comTwitter: @mattcanham