05/10/2013 04:10 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

Immigration Reform Needs Growth Focus

What's in a name? If it's a bill in Congress, it turns out there's quite a bit.

The Gang of Eight's immigration proposal, the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act," clearly lays out what -- and in what order -- an overhaul must do.

There is no doubt that the first priority for immigration reform must be to increase our safety. The legislation seeks to achieve this through enhanced border security and a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers that are currently vulnerable to manipulation by criminal elements and unscrupulous employers.

There will be extended debate over border security as well as over the criteria required to climb on the path to citizenship and the rules and regulations of any guest worker plan.

However, the pivotal discussion will be over the "Economic Opportunity" portion of the measure. Determining if the bill becomes law may hinge upon whether it focuses on sparking economic growth or expanding allotments for family reunification. In order to succeed in this era of budget constraint and anemic growth, success requires a focus on growth.

Making this bill a driver of economic growth will require a focus on attracting younger workers with the skills that can boost our economy. These workers, with many years in front of them to pay income, Social Security, and Medicare taxes before they start drawing benefits, will provide tax dollars and even more valuable human capital. Additionally, our society's key strengths are its openness, economic vitality, and upward mobility. Attracting the best and brightest from around the world would further those ends.

This focus would substantiate the CATO Institute report highlighting the economic benefits of reform and blunt the argument of the Heritage Foundation report on the cost of immigration reform.

It would also make it easier to reach accommodation on the other most significant issue facing our nation: reigning in our debt. Economic growth would make reaching bi-partisan agreement on balancing the budget more attainable.

Conversely, immigrants that would come to America as part of an expanded allotment for family reunification could be less likely to have the skills that match economic needs and be closer to drawing down retirement benefits, exasperating our fiscal pinch. Allowing a focus on family reunification also risks pulling the immigration bill into the vortex of the ongoing culture wars that have fueled so much of our political gridlock.

By keeping the legislation focused on economics, the Gang of Eight's proposal has the opportunity to pay dividends to the treasury and to generations of young workers wishing to create a better lives for themselves. Current citizens will also benefit from a new crop of skilled laborers. A rising tide lifts all boats, and working alongside people with different experiences and opinions can jump-start the creative process, which is critical to our 21st century service-based economy.

This approach should increase the likelihood that Congress can move beyond agitation to action on comprehensive immigration and fiscal reform simultaneously.

Hon. Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).