SALT LAKE CITY — Putting the brakes on immigration reform, as Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee suggested in a recent letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, is the wrong approach, the president of the Salt Lake Chamber said Tuesday.
Asking for more time to debate the overhaul of the nation's immigration system "is absolutely ridiculous to me," said Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber during a press conference featuring seven presidents of seven chambers of commerce in Utah.
The issue has been thoroughly studied, debated and discussed. It is time to act, Beattie said.
Hatch and Lee were among six Republican senators to sign a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., expressing their concerns. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group in the Senate, the "gang of eight," is working to produce a bill this month.
"Good night. Maybe it's time to recall and get some people who understand what we need in business," Beattie said.
Later in the day, Hatch's office released a statement that said Beattie had made "very misinformed and misleading comments" about the senator's efforts to pass immigration reform.
"Lane Beattie’s comments today are disappointing and frustrating, especially considering he hasn’t discussed this with Senator Hatch. The fact is that Senator Hatch has and continues to push for immigration reform - with several of his legislative efforts having become law.
"He just introduced legislation, the Immigration Innovation Act in January that fundamentally reforms America’s high-skilled immigration system that has the backing of a bipartisan group of 25 senators and would allow highly-educated, American-trained foreign workers to remain in the U.S. This bill has earned support from some of the most prominent names in the business community, including many in Utah,” said Matt Harakal, Hatch's press secretary.
Seven chamber presidents representing the state's largest communities, with the exception of Gregg McArthur of St. George, who was unable to attend, took part in Tuesday's press conference. The presidents said reforms are needed across the board to address high-tech business needs for highly educated workers as well as address an estimated 11 million people living in the country without authorization.
Stan Parrish, president of the Sandy Chamber of Commerce, said by 2018, the nation will need workers to fill 230,000 jobs with science, technology, engineering and mathematics training. "There aren't enough people to fill those jobs," he said.
Yet, due to the nation's inadequate H-1B visa system, international students educated in those disciplines in American colleges and universities cannot remain in the country after they graduate due to 20-year-old caps on available visas. Under current laws, the United States is able to retain about 7 percent of those graduates while other nations retain 70 to 80 percent, Parrish said.
"We send them home to compete with us. That doesn't make a lot of economic sense," Parrish said.
While much attention is given to high tech industry needs, chamber presidents from Park City and Cache Valley said the hospitality and agricultural industries are heavily impacted by the nation's broken immigration system.
Sandy Emile, executive director of the Cache Chamber of Commerce, said the state's and nation's agriculture industry has been "held hostage" by the nation's antiquated immigration policies.
"We are asking that they (Congress) work a little harder and a little faster," Emile said, noting that as the nation waits for reforms, crops rot in the fields and meat processing plants are not operating at capacity.
"This is an industry that is not going away," she said, noting that the world heavily relies on U.S. agriculture production as their food source. "Help us grow and support, basically, a global economy."
Swallow weighs in
Elsewhere Tuesday, Utah Attorney General John Swallow was among a bipartisan group of 35 state and territorial attorneys general that called on congressional leaders for immigration reforms that keep communities safe and protect the nation's borders.
“We are being impacted with drug crime, identity theft issues and gangs due to our porous borders and it is threatening our safety, our economy and our way of life,” Swallow said in a prepared statement.
“A streamlined visa process and state input on the numbers of immigrant workers are also vital.”
The letter to Senate and House leaders urged reforms that focus on public safety, address the needs of business yet "where possible, should prioritize keeping families together in order to ensure the most supportive home environment for all the children across our country."
The letter also pointed out the need for "a sensible means to deal with the immigrants who are currently in the country without legal status but are of good character, pay taxes and are committed to continuing to contribute to our society."