SALT LAKE CITY — Smart immigration reform would lead to more American jobs.

That's the message Jeremy Robbins, policy adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, left with Utah political and business leaders Wednesday. It's a notion, he said, that is lost in the debate about how to fix a broken immigration system.

"Immigration reform is an economic imperative," he said. "The story is immigrants create jobs. Millions of Americans have jobs today because of immigrants."

Robbins also helps manage the Partnership for a New American Economy, a coalition of business moguls and mayors trying to raise awareness of the economic benefits of sensible immigration reform. Co-chairmen include heavy-hitters such as Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch and J.W. Marriott Jr. Locally, West Valley Mayor Mike Winder and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker joined the group.

In addition to speaking at a Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Robbins participated in a panel discussion with Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, attended by various city officials and congressional staffers.

"The immigration issue really is an economic one," Shurtleff said. "We need to separate the debate."

Robbins cited studies and statistics that show immigrants as successful entrepreneurs and inventors, but said people don't believe there is an economic benefit to immigration reform.

"Rhetorically we're losing the debate," he said. "People believe immigrants are taking jobs right now. But we can change that."

He suggested four "discreet" changes to strengthen the economy while the country waits on comprehensive reform:

Green cards for immigrants who obtain advanced degrees in the U.S.

Startup visas for foreigners who have business plans and capital.

Streamlining the visa process for low-skilled workers.

Raising visa caps for high-skilled temporary workers.

"We think of ourselves as pragmatists in this debate," Robbins said.

To that end, he said it is untenable to deport the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. on whom large sectors of the economy depend. The solution, he said, is path for them to earn legal status that may include paying a penalty and learning English. An authorization to work doesn't necessarily have to lead to citizenship, he said.

But, Robbins said, that isn't part of the conversation right now. "The second you start talking about people start yelling amnesty and the debate shuts down."

Utah's guest worker program contained in HB116 has come under fire for that very reason and is the subject of a growing repeal movement.

Robbins noted the Utah Legislature's effort to tackle illegal immigration, but stopped short of saying the coalition would support the state's effort to obtain federal waivers to implement some of the laws.

"We're very happy that Utah is an incubator for all these ideas, but at the end of the day, it is a federal issue," he said.

Said Daw, "When the federal government fails to do their job, it has to become state and local issue. It has to."