Caterpillar Chief Executive Doug Oberhelman on Monday said immigrant employees are key to competing in a global economy, which is why he wants immigration reform that includes an increase in the number of work visas and a path toward a legal status for 11.1 million people now living illegally in the United States.
"(Immigrant) employees are filling needed roles and helping us remain productive and competitive and to be the leader we are," Oberhelman said at an event in Chicago to unveil the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, a group of businesses, trade associations and immigrant rights groups lobbying for immigration reform.
Oberhelman's comments come on the heels of an announcement last week that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO had reached an agreement on a guest worker visa for low-skilled workers.
On Sunday, key senators trying to negotiate an agreement on immigration reform were divided on how close they are to reaching consensus on the legislation. Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., predicted that a bipartisan plan could be announced as soon as next week. That is when the Senate returns from a two-week recess.
But Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., whose support is seen as crucial to attract the votes of conservative Republican senators to a comprehensive effort, said that talk of an agreement was "premature" and cautioned that the bill would require extensive public debate in committee hearings and on the Senate floor.
"We have made substantial progress, and I believe we will be able to agree on a legislative proposal," he said in a statement Sunday. "However, that legislation will only be a starting point."
Oberhelman said he has trouble filling positions across the company, from engineering spots to lower-skilled positions. To fill the gap, he's tried to hire some of the foreign students who have had internships at Caterpillar.
"But it's not easy," he said. "The process is tedious. Some Caterpillar employees from China and India have been waiting more than eight years for a green card that would give them permanent residency."
Others, Oberhelman said, are not allowed to stay in the U.S. and he loses them to competitors.
"This is unacceptable," he said.
Oberhelman said wants to see an increase in the number of H-1B visas granted every year. The visas, which are capped annually at 65,000, allow companies to hire foreign workers in specialized fields, such as engineering or computer programming.
On the path toward a legal status for the millions of undocumented immigrants, Oberhelman said it should not be a free pass and fell short of calling it a path toward citizenship.
"We should find ways to welcome them as contributors to this society," he said.
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