SALT LAKE CITY — The Senate needs to pass immigration reform legislation by a wide margin to ensure the House takes on the issue, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Wednesday.
“If this bill passes, it has to pass with a huge vote in the Senate so the House has to consider it. There’s a lot of politics involved. It’s a lot easier not to consider it," Hatch said while addressing a luncheon hosted by Zions Bank.
"We want to make sure the House has to. We have a lot of good people over there who can save this. We've got to get it right on our side. Hopefully, I can play a modest role in getting it right,” he said.
During the event, Hatch was honored with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Spirit of Enterprise Award in recognition of his support of business issues in Congress.
The “Gang of Eight” comprehensive immigration reform bill is scheduled to be heard next week by the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Hatch is a longtime member. The committee will likely spend the entire month of May reviewing and debating the proposal, Hatch said.
“It’s too early to tell how the mark-up will go. Me and my colleagues plan to make suggestions how to improve the bill,” he said. “It’s going to take some real leadership to get the bill passed.”
Hatch was complimentary of Sen. Marco Rubio, a conservative Republican who has led out on the “Gang of Eight” legislation. “He’s intelligent and articulate. He’s a very smart, handsome guy.”
On Tuesday, Rubio acknowledged to a conservative radio host that the bill probably wouldn’t pass the GOP-controlled House without some tweaks.
Hatch said he is still studying the 844-page bill.
“The devil is always in the details. I’m taking my time to review the proposal before weighing in,” he said.
Polls suggest the nation is ready for immigration reform, Hatch said, adding that he was encouraged by consensus that had been achieved on portions of the legislation.
For instance, Hatch said he had worked closely with Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to refine the details of the agricultural workers program and to get union and agricultural representatives to back the legislation.
Under the proposal, current farm workers would be eligible to apply for legal status under a Blue Card program. Guest workers would be able to enter the country under contract-based visas or portable “at-will” visas.
Hatch said representatives of Utah’s agriculture industry worry about maintaining a sufficient labor force to work their farms and ranches.
“I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘I can’t harvest my crops without undocumented workers,’” he said.
Hatch is sponsoring legislation independent of the “Gang of Eight” bill to address workforce needs in high-tech industries.
The Immigration Innovation Act of 2013 is intended to give American employers greater access to highly skilled workers and address the nation’s long-term science, technology, engineering and mathematics educational needs.
The bill has 25 bipartisan co-sponsors, “two more Democrats than Republicans. I haven’t had time to work over my Republican colleagues, but we’ll get there,” Hatch said.
The bill would allow the annual cap on H-1B visas to float between 115,000 and 300,000 depending on market conditions and demand. H-1B visas allow U.S. employers to hire foreign nationals to work long term. Across the county, employers use H-1B visas to hire skilled engineers or to keep top international students graduating from American universities from taking their talents elsewhere.
“This is what you call a market-based escalator that we placed in this bill,” he said.
Hatch said it makes no sense for the nation to play a role in educating some of the world’s best and brightest only to have them to leave the country once they graduate because of outdated caps on H-1B visas.
“We’re losing some of the top minds in the world because of the stupid immigration approach that we take,” he said.
As for the “Gang of Eight” bill, Hatch said some senators on both sides of the aisle are working on “killer amendments” to halt the legislation.
Hatch said he prefers to do what he can to refine the bill as much as possible.
“All I can say is, Utah, I think, will be in the forefront of doing this," he said. "We’ll do whatever we can to get this right. Hopefully, I’ll be able to support the bill in the end.”
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company