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Originally published Saturday, November 5, 2011 at 5:00 PM

Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

It's time to cool the anti-immigrant rhetoric

There's too much anti-immigrant rhetoric being bandied about in the nation, writes Neal Peirce, But there are also cooler heads seeking to protect immigrant communities. Included is an array of American corporations insisting that fresh immigration is required to invigorate our economy.

Syndicated columnist

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Presidential debates are aflame with calls for border moats and electrified fences. Attacks are launched on any candidate's past pro-immigrant positions. The Department of Homeland Security boasts of deporting 397,000 undocumented immigrants in a year — and promising more to come. Actual laws, Arizona- and Alabama-style, are clearly designed to instill fear in immigrant communities.

This is one America, 2011.

But there's another, with cooler heads. It's a broad swath of local officials seeking to protect — and where there is a need, to legalize — their immigrant communities. And it's an amazing array of American corporations insisting that fresh immigration into the United States, especially in times of nagging recession, is required to invigorate our economy.

John Cook, mayor of El Paso, which sits directly on the Mexican border, recently put the local officials' position this way: "Our immigration system is broken. When we have a demand for a half-million new workers each year, and no way to bring them in legally, it's an invitation for illegal immigration."

There is a priority need to find a streamlined process to legalize the status of today's 12 million immigrants who overstayed their visas or came here illegally, said Cook: "Immigrants are becoming suspects, and we have to remember we are a nation built on immigration."

Cook was speaking at a forum of the Partnership for a New American Economy, organized last year by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch to press for immigration reform based on its huge economic potential. The group includes dozens of CEOs including Steve Ballmer (Microsoft), Jim McNerney (Boeing) and Robert Iger (Disney), as well as such mayors as Phil Gordon (Phoenix), Michael Nutter (Philadelphia) and Antonio Villaraigosa (Los Angeles).

Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies, Bloomberg notes, were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. He describes newcomers to America as "dreamers and risk-takers who are driven to succeed" — and not just in earlier times. Immigrants from such nations as Ecuador, Mexico, China, Russia, South Korea, India and Pakistan are a main reason, said Bloomberg, that New York City rebounded so strongly from hard times it faced in the 1970s and '80s.

And on the high-tech side, immigrants were founders of such firms as Google, Yahoo, eBay and Intel.

But what's U.S. policy today? Only 15 percent of the permanent visas the country offers are for skilled individuals. Eighty-five percent go for family reunification or for refugees from harm. The imbalance "is sabotaging our economy," says Bloomberg, because skilled workers not only spark creation of many new jobs but also provide knowledge of markets that will help U.S. firms increase their exports.

Next reform idea: Make it easy, not a tortuous path, for foreign students who earn advanced degrees in the U.S. to remain here. Foreigners account for a stunning two-thirds of those earning computer-science or engineering Ph.Ds from U.S. institutions. Making it tough for them to remain is "about the dumbest thing we could possibly do," says Bloomberg.

Third idea: Stop turning away so many entrepreneurs who want to come to the U.S. and start businesses. And fourth, dramatically expand the number of temporary H-1B visas designed to fill crucial gaps in our workforce.

Failure to take those steps, Bloomberg charges, will undermine our economy, indeed "put our nation's future at risk."

How alarming then when our national political debate on immigration sinks to the level of shibboleths — how to keep more of "them" out.

Plus, the economic argument doesn't apply exclusively to skilled immigrants. About 70 million immigrants have come to the United States over time. Huge proportions of those millions came with scant education — just irrepressible ambition to better their own and their children's lives.

The same phenomenon would likely be repeated if a course to legal residency could be opened to our 12 million undocumented residents. Richard Herman, co-author of the book "Immigrant, Inc.," cites a University of California at Los Angeles study that estimated legalizing all our undocumented immigrants would, over a decade, add more than $1.5 trillion to the U.S. economy as the immigrants moved confidently forward to buy homes and cars, and send their children to college.

Some Republican House members are softening a bit on the immigration issue.

"I am troubled by the demonization of immigrants, legal or illegal, in our party," Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, told The New York Times.

Message to Republican presidential debaters: Please tune in. It's not just immigrants — it's also our welfare — that are at stake.

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Email nrp@citistates.com

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