Focus on more than border security and legal residency

Posted Tuesday, Jul. 09, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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There’s more to the national and local immigration reform debate than its current focus on border security and possible legalization for the millions of undocumented individuals living in our country.

Another critical facet is the ability of our federal immigration policies to strengthen our economy and our competitiveness.

On the employment side, companies like Sabre Holdings need thousands of talented scientists, mathematicians, engineers and computer programmers to deliver cutting-edge technology to our airline partners, corporate travel customers and average citizens using websites like Travelocity and Expedia.

We always look to hire Americans first, but our schools regrettably do not currently produce enough engineers and similar scientists to meet our immediate needs.

Current federal immigration law imposes a yearly national cap at 85,000 for these highly educated individuals. This year, the application pool was drained on the very first day.

Many successful foreign students are educated at U.S. universities but aren’t allowed to work here after graduation, meaning we are educating scientists who are forced to leave our country and work for foreign companies that compete directly with American companies like ours.

The good news is that legislation that passed the Senate recognizes the need to

increase the number of highly skilled foreign workers we can recruit, while ensuring that their wage levels always make it easier and cheaper to hire equally qualified Americans.

It would also exempt from the immigration cap those workers with advanced technical degrees.

The legislation also uses increased fees on visas and green cards to develop a new education funding program to educate the next generation of American students and consumers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

Our visa and immigration policies also must be reformed to attract more tourists and business travelers.

The growth in international visitors to the U.S. — a record 67 million in 2012 — has been one of the brightest areas of the economic recovery since 2008.

The Obama administration deserves kudos for reducing wait times for many international travelers to obtain visas to visit the U.S. and for partnering with Brand USA, the new tourism marketing arm of the United States that promotes the U.S. as a travel destination.

Still, the immigration debate has highlighted several areas where legislation is clearly needed to make the U.S. a more welcoming place.

First, the Senate bill would reform the Visa Waiver Program to allow growth markets like Brazil and Poland to send their citizens to the U.S. without a required visa interview once new counter-terrorism agreements are in place.

Second, the bill would create a pilot program to allow visa applicants to use videoconferencing technology to conduct their visa interviews if they live far from a U.S. consulate.

Far too many travelers still have to “take a trip in order to take a trip” to the U.S.

Third, the bill would provide significant new funding to U.S. Customs and Border Protection to hire 3,500 new CBP officers to reduce growing wait times at our international airports like DFW, as well as our land ports of entry with Mexico and Canada.

Lastly, Brand USA would be made permanent to provide long-term stability for its private-sector partners.

To build an economy that is producing jobs for Texans and all Americans, we have to compete around the world for top talent and business.

As the immigration debate moves from the Senate to the House, let’s not lose sight that sensible reform of legal immigration should ensure that American companies can hire the best and brightest from around the world and enable us to secure our place as the top tourism destination on the planet.

Tom Klein is president of Sabre Holdings, the Southlake travel technology company, and a board member of Brand USA, a public-private partnership that promotes international travel to the U.S.

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