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Updated: 6:52 p.m.
President Barack Obama’s speech on immigration Tuesday may have helped his chances with a key constituency in 2012: business leaders.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups hailed Obama’s attempt to refocus Congress on the issue and tied immigration directly to economic recovery.
That enthusiasm contrasted sharply with the skepticism expressed by Hispanic advocates and Members of Congress, who said it was unlikely that lawmakers could strike a deal anytime soon.
Obama did not provide a timeline or legislative guidelines in his half-hour speech in the border city of El Paso, Texas. As he squinted to read the teleprompter under direct sunlight, the president reiterated the same broad solutions that the administration has long been pushing: prioritizing border security and enforcement of current laws, coupled with guest worker programs and creating a path to legalization for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
Of particular interest to business leaders was his call for easing green card restrictions on H-1B visas, which are designed for highly skilled workers. Tech companies have lobbied the administration for action on this issue, and the president quoted Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates in Tuesday’s speech as saying, “The United States will find it far more difficult to maintain its competitive edge ... if it excludes those who are able and willing to help us compete.”
Obama called the passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill “an economic imperative.”
“One way to strengthen the middle class is to reform the immigration system so that there’s no longer a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everybody else,” he said. “Immigration reform is not just the right thing to do. It’s smart for our economy.”
It was a well-timed message, business leaders argued, because states have been following Arizona’s example in passing local immigration enforcement laws absent federal action.
“We are against this notion of a piecemeal patchwork of statewide solutions that will hinder economic growth,” said Javier Palomarez, president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which represents 3 million Hispanic-owned businesses.
Palomarez argued that states and the federal government should instead focus on economic opportunities presented by an immigrant workforce.
“With this economy, we need everybody who is willing to work at work. We believe reform will help us with economic recovery,” he said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has long supported immigration reform as a way to help American businesses remain competitive, gave the speech an “A” grade.
“We were quite pleased with the ideas he put forth,” said Randy Johnson, the chamber’s senior vice president of labor, immigration and employment benefits. “Now’s the time to get prepared for an economic recovery. This bill isn’t going to rush through Congress, so let’s get off the dime.”
Johnson said the president’s outline for immigration reform largely reflects the business group’s position.