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Immigration and tech: The White House speaks out

Join us for a live discussion of how the technology sector will be affected by President Obama's plan for immigration reform.

WASHINGTON--In his first major speech on the issue, President Barack Obama on Thursday said the current immigration system in the U.S. needs to be changed, and he called on Republicans to join Democrats in supporting immigration reform legislation.

"The system is broken," he said in a speech given at American University in Washington, D.C. "And everybody knows it. Unfortunately, reform has been held hostage to political posturing and special-interest wrangling...But the fact is, without bipartisan support, as we had just a few years ago, we cannot solve this problem. Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes. That is the political and mathematical reality."

President Obama did not unveil any new comprehensive reform bill in his speech. But he talked about the need to fix a system that is clearly not getting the job done. A major piece of his talk focused on helping an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants gain citizenship. But the president also talked about reforming the current legal system of immigration to make the process of getting work visas and green cards easier to obtain, while also making sure that families stay together.

"Indeed, after years of patchwork fixes and ill-conceived revisions, the legal immigration system is as broken as the borders," he said. "Backlogs and bureaucracy mean the process can take years. While an applicant waits for approval, he or she is often forbidden from visiting the United States--which means even husbands and wives may be forced to spend many years apart."

At a special press event here Thursday, Cecilia Muñoz, director of White House Intergovernmental Affairs, answered questions from reporters invited to participate in a live Webcast. Muñoz tried to explain President Obama's position on immigration issues. Specifically, she answered questions about the administrations stand on dealing with legal immigration, an issue that is of great interest to the technology community.

While much of the debate surrounding immigration has been about legalizing illegal immigrants, for technology companies, the biggest issue is making sure that they have access to enough skilled legal immigrants, especially as the U.S. economy rebounds from a recession. More so than most industries, technology companies rely on foreign-born workers, many educated in U.S. university systems, to fill key roles that enable them to innovate and grow.

Muñoz discussed the importance of having an efficient immigration system in place to ensure that the U.S. is able to attract and keep talented individuals regardless of where they are from. She said it is important for the U.S. to keep foreign-born individuals who are educated at U.S. universities to help fuel innovation and economic growth. And she reiterated President Obama's call for Congress to step in with new laws to streamline the process and make sure that individuals do not get stuck in a backlog of bureaucracy.

She also emphasized the importance of helping legal immigrant workers stay together with their families.

"If people are separated from their husbands or wives, they might come to this country and overstay their visa and be here illegally because there is a long wait or no other way," she said.

While President Obama is an advocate for streamlining the legal process for immigrating to the U.S., Muñoz emphasized that any changes to the current system must not compromise security. She said that the government must continue to do background checks on visa holders and those applying for green cards. She said that the current backlog, which can take up to 10 years to get a green card, is not because of security checks but because there are only a limited number of visas and green cards given each year.

To view the actual reporter roundtable with Muñoz, go to the White House Web site, where a taped version of the discussion will be archived and available for viewing later today.

Updated at 12:43 p.m. PDT: Quotes and information from President Obama's speech as well as information from the reporter roundtable discussion at the White House have been added.