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N.D. chamber, companies call on Congress for immigration reform

BISMARCK -- Don Morton, a senior director with Microsoft Corp. in Fargo, said Thursday the country's immigration laws are archaic and need to be reformed to meet the workforce demands of the state's growing and high-tech industries.

He pointed to countries such as Canada and Australia, which he said "have come up with progressive, enlightened immigration laws" compared to the United States, whose laws make it difficult for foreign students to obtain citizenship and remain here to work after graduation.

"We live in a global economy, we have to compete globally for customers and talent," he said. "Our archaic immigration laws are putting us behind some countries that are doing some super jobs with immigration."

Morton is among business leaders from Fargo to Dickinson who are teaming up with the Greater North Dakota Chamber and Partnership for a New American Economy to raise support for comprehensive immigration reform.

Partnership for a New American Economy is a bipartisan group of mayors and business leaders from across the country aimed at raising awareness of the economic benefits of sensible immigration reform.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington approved a comprehensive immigration reform proposal that would put 11 million undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship, while loosening restrictions for high-skilled workers and creating a new visa program for low-skilled workers. The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill in June.

The coalition took to social media Wednesday and Thursday as part of the "March for Innovation," a two-day virtual march urging thousands to contact their elected officials to pass immigration reform.

On Thursday, the North Dakota coalition pushing the reform held a teleconference to continue its rallying efforts.

Andy Peterson, president and chief executive officer of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, highlighted five principles he said should be played into the immigration reform debate in Congress to have a reasonable chance of success. Those included attracting and retaining the world's top innovators, recruiting talent to fill gaps in high- and low-skilled jobs, and bringing the undocumented workers in the country into the system to contribute to the tax system and attain a better education.

He said North Dakota is a shining example of why immigration reform is necessary, with its need for more workers, and the state's three congressional leaders can play a big part in the debate.

"The state has the number one business climate as far as growth in the nation," he said. "Our delegation can serve as an example to representatives to the House and Senate across the country of demonstrating the need, and how compromise and reaching across the aisle can happen. We can be leaders in this."

"We do have a good story to tell, our testimony as a state is a good one that gives us credibility," said U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer. "At the same time, we can tell a story we are a state that isn't encumbered by the racial implications that gets in the way of the debate."

Cramer, a first-term Republican, said he supports a comprehensive reform package but that a focus needs to be on the number and classification of workers wanting to get into the country.

"We need to be more flexible of shifting these back and forth with a lot of capacity in one area," he said. "Can we shift some of that to other areas where there is over-demand and not enough supply?"

The House has its own immigration reform proposal and plans to unveil it sometime soon, he noted.

Don Canton, spokesman for Republican Sen. John Hoeven, said Hoeven wants to see comprehensive reform. He has sponsored the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, a reform measure that would establish a market-based immigration system keyed to industry demand for skilled workers in science, technology, engineering and math -- the so-called STEM fields.

Canton said the plan is to try to integrate the bill into the comprehensive Senate proposal.

According to a release from Hoeven's office, jobs in the STEM fields are among the fastest growing and best paying in the country, but those jobs are currently hard to fill with U.S. workers.

For example, technology experts predict that between 2012 and 2020, the computer industry will create 120,000 computer science jobs, but U.S. universities will produce only 40,000 STEM bachelor's degree graduates, with some forced to leave the country.

One immigration reform proposal would allocate up to 55,000 green cards a year for foreign graduates of U.S. universities with advanced STEM degrees.

"These people come from all over the world, trained in the best American colleges and universities, and then we make them leave after five years. That doesn't make sense," Canton said. "We want them to stay and contribute to the economy."

Whitney Phillips, spokeswoman for Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, said her office is still reviewing the language that came out of the Senate committee Tuesday.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.