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Employers encouraged by proposal to fix U.S. immigration chaos

By Lisa Baertlein and Sarah McBride

LOS ANGELES/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The first big political push for an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws in more than five years holds out some promise for employers who have long complained that the current system is broken and inhibits hiring.

From farmers who cannot find Americans to pick their crops to technology firm who need more engineers from abroad, the bipartisan plan from eight U.S. senators announced on Monday offered solutions like a "workable" program for seasonal farm labor and a commitment to "attracting and keeping the world's best and brightest."

"We are encouraged by the momentum on these important issues," said Microsoft general counsel and executive vice president Brad Smith.

Companies and business groups of all stripes have come out in favor of immigration reform, hoping to tap the immigrant labor force that has long been a key to growth of the U.S. economy.

But Smith said Microsoft needs to see the details of the legislation, which has not yet been crafted, and that it hopes the reform will expand the so-called H-1B visa system for highly skilled workers.

The government now offers a quota of 65,000 H-1B visas per year, a number unusually met in a few weeks of applications and far fewer than the U.S. technology sector says it needs to innovate and remain competitive.

The eight senators said that any immigrant who receives an advanced degree in the United States in science, technology, engineering or math (collectively known as STEM), should be given a green card, shorthand for legal residence and work permit.

"It makes no sense to educate the world's future innovators and entrepreneurs only to ultimately force them to leave our country at the moment they are most able to contribute to our economy," the senators said.

The proposal from the senators, who include Arizona Republican John McCain and New York Democrat Charles Schumer, goes so far as to offer a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. Schumer said he hoped a bill would pass Congress as early as mid-year.

But it also offers provisions to make legal immigration more efficient and to bolster an employment verification system to help companies know if they are hiring illegal migrants.

INSPECTIONS TEST COMPANIES

While the U.S. government's "E-Verify" program is now only required in some states, a mandatory beefed-up system that takes the burden off companies for detecting fraud in identity documents and places it on the government might be welcomed.

A one-step process in which the employer enters data and awaits a government approval "could be a very effective system," said Eleanor Pelta, head of immigration law at the Washington law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

Several high-profile companies, including burrito chain Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc, have been investigated after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) audits turned up problems with their employment paperwork. ICE started investigations at nearly 4,000 workplaces in fiscal 2012.

Chipotle moved to E-Verify almost two years ago after ICE audits revealed it had hired hundreds of illegal immigrants. Company spokesman Chris Arnold said that mandating a similar system would be "pretty much moot" for the 1,300-restaurant company.

While passage of the proposal into law is far from assured, farm organizations may have most reason to be encouraged, given its emphasis on meeting the needs of the agriculture industry.

"I see this absolutely as our best opportunity that we've had in a generation to get ... a solution to our immigration problems," said Charles Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

In the nation's largest food-producing and exporting state, California, farmers said they hoped immigration legislation would catch up to the reality of America's food supply.

"Many of the people who tend to the food we eat are not properly documented," said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

(Writing by Mary Milliken; Editing by David Brunnstrom)

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