US Education, Foreign Success: Why Obama and Former Foes Are Pushing Immigration Reform

Jun 11, 2013 3:38pm

 

Nearly 7,000 miles from U.S. soil, in the capital of India, sits a case study in why American business is solidly behind immigration reform.

“The immigration laws were the reason I came back to India,” said Kunal Bahl, an Ivy League graduate who wanted to stay in the United States but was forced home after his H1-B visa was denied.

Bahl returned to his hometown of New Delhi following his graduation from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school with an MBA and started India’s largest e-commerce business -SnapDeal: a $1 billion company touted as the eBay-meets-Amazon-meets-Groupon of India. It now employs 1,500 Indian, instead of American, workers.

Bahl attributed much of his success to the education he received in the U.S.

“I think it helped to open my eyes at a very, very young age,” he said. “I think one of the great things about the American education system … at the university level is that there are great opportunities to pursue, even outside of the classroom.”

A report released by the Partnership for a New American Economy in 2011 found more than 40 percent Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children, even though immigrants have, on average, only made up 10.5 percent of the American population.  The same report showed that 20 percent of the newest Fortune 500 companies, founded between 1985-2010, were founded by an immigrant.

“I’m sure there are many other companies that are getting created in the home countries of these students and not in America,” Bahl said.

His is an experience that demonstrates why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has spent millions opposing President Obama’s other policies, today stood on stage with the president as he prodded the Senate to pass immigration reform, the No. 1 item on his agenda.

Obama today urged lawmakers to support the “common-sense, bipartisan bill” that later passed a major Senate hurdle, saying “Congress needs to act. And that moment is now.”

In a procedural vote this afternoon, the Senate voted 82-15 to begin debate on the immigration reform plan.  The opposition attempted to stop the “Gang of 8″ bill before it started and was foiled.

“If you’re serious about actually fixing the system, then this is the vehicle to do it,” Obama said in a White House ceremony, surrounded by law enforcement representatives, business and labor leaders, and Republican and Democratic elected officials who have also called on the Senate to act.

“There is no good reason to play procedural games or engage in obstruction just to block the best chance we’ve had in years to address this problem in a way that’s fair to middle-class families, to business owners, to legal immigrants,” he said, as he warned against those trying to “gin up fear and create division.”

The president called for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform by the end of the summer, something House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, would also like to see.

“I think by the end of the year, we could have a bill,” Boehner told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America.”

The president stressed that the current system fails to embrace the vast economic potential of immigrants studying in the U.S.

“Our immigration system invites the best and the brightest from all over the world to come and study at our top universities and then, once they finish, once they’ve got the training they need to build a new invention or create a new business, our system too often tells them, ‘Go back home,’ so that other countries can reap the benefits, the new jobs, the new businesses, the new industries,” he said. “That’s not smart. But that’s the broken system we have today.”

That “broken system” is something Tolu Olubunmi knows all too well.

Olubunmi, who came to the U.S. from Africa when she was 14 years old and later received a degree in chemical engineering, told ABC News immigration reform would mean “liberation” for her.

“It would mean being able to step up and show yourself completely … to go to work and not fear that you might not come back home to your children,” she told ABC News’ Jim Avila. “It would mean being able to travel and see your family that you haven’t seen in many, many years.”

Olubunmi is eager to put her degree to good use.

“I could be an engineer right now and I’m not, which is unfortunate because we need more engineers, we need more female engineers, we need more African-American female engineers and I’m one,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that my immigration status limits my contribution.”

While she currently has temporary status, Olubunmi said, she is “still looking [over my shoulder]… but I turn my neck a little less now.”

The bill under review would provide a pathway to earned citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented individuals currently living in the U.S., but only after improvements are made to border security.

“That pathway is arduous,” Obama said. “You got to pass background checks. You got to learn English. You got to pay taxes and a penalty. And then you’ve got to go to the back of the line behind everybody who’s done things the right way and have tried to come here legally. So this won’t be a quick process. … This is no cakewalk.

“And if passed, the Senate bill, as currently written and as hitting the floor, would put in place the toughest border enforcement plan that America has ever seen,” he added. “So nobody’s taking border enforcement lightly. That’s part of this bill.”

Obama admitted the bill is not perfect and that it will require sacrifice on both sides of the aisle.

“It’s a compromise,” he said. “And going forward, nobody’s going to get everything that they want — not Democrats, not Republicans, not me. But this is a bill that’s largely consistent with the principles that I and people on this stage have laid out for common-sense reform.”

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