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Washington • A new immigration bill led by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would greatly increase the number of foreign-born scientists and engineers who are allowed to live and work here.

It's a bipartisan idea touted by President Barack Obama that joins the touchy topic of immigration reform with the employment need for many companies.

As an example, Hatch noted there are on average 120,000 openings each year for computer scientists but only 40,000 graduates with legal status.

"At least right now there are not enough Americans trained and ready to fill these jobs," Hatch said. "We cannot continue to ignore this problem. It is that simple."

He introduced the bill with Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chris Coons, D-Del.

Their legislation would give legal status to foreign-born students who get a doctorate or master's degree in a science, math, engineering or technology field.

And it would boost the number of highly skilled immigrant visas by at least 50,000 each year to a total of 115,000 and depending on economic need that number could rise all they way up to 300,000.

Companies who recruit these foreign workers would pay a federal fee that would be used to boost science and technology education in the United States.

"We must be a country that makes stuff again, that invents things, that exports to the world," said Klobuchar said. "And to do that we need the world's talent."

Klobuchar and Rubio linked their proposal with efforts at broad immigration reform that would include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, and even Hatch said he hopes this is just the first in a larger attempt at reforming the immigration system.

So while Hatch called for quick Senate action on his new bill, it's possible that it could become part of a broader reform package.

Obama hopes that happens, including a similar idea in his immigration proposal released Tuesday.

"If you're a foreign student, who wants to pursue a career in science or technology, or a foreign entrepreneur who wants to start a business, with the backing of American investors, we should help you do that here," Obama said in Las Vegas. "Because if you succeed, you'll create American businesses. And American jobs."

The House passed a bill last November that would boost the visas for highly skilled workers but it also eliminated other visas awarded through a lottery system, which Democrats largely objected to. Utah's three House members at that time supported the bill.

Rubio, a Cuban-American and a Republican leader on immigration, tried to head off potential criticism that the Hatch bill would take jobs from Americans or that it would lead to a rush of new immigrants, arguing that like the nation's professional sports leagues, U.S. businesses should employ the world's best minds.

"The smartest, hardest working most talented people on this planet, we should want them to come here," Rubio said. "I, for one, have no fear that our country is going to be overrun by Ph.D's."

The senators also argued that failing to boost the number of highly skilled visas would hurt America's economic competitiveness.

Hatch has heard the same thing from Jonathan Johnson, president of, a Utah-based company.

Johnson said his company is always looking for engineers and software developers and can't find enough domestically, which has slowed the company's growth.

"Frankly, they are hard to find and it makes no sense to me that we bring the world's best and brightest here," he said. "We educate them, train them and then force them to leave the country and compete against us."

Johnson described immigration reform as a complicated puzzle.

"Some pieces are going to be hard to put together," he said, "but this piece is an easy piece."

Twitter: @mattcanham