Frank Keating, a Republican and former Oklahoma governor, said Monday in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece that "it's time to open the doors to immigrants to boost the economy."
Keating, head of the American Bankers Assn. trade group, is the latest GOP businessman to call on his compatriots in Congress to adopt the overhaul, which is a priority of President Obama.
Supporters of the measure are trying to overcome stiff opposition from House Republicans, many of whom won't support such provisions as a 13-year path to citizenship for qualified immigrants.
The House GOP would prefer dealing with the issue in a piecemeal approach. Aides to Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said the House would not take up "massive, Obamacare-style legislation that no one understands."
The comprehensive Senate-proposed overhaul would, among other provisions, increase high-tech visas, revamp farm labor programs and strengthen border security.
Obama renewed his push for immigration reform after the end of the divisive partial government shutdown last month. He said he might consider Republican proposals to overhaul parts of the immigration system.
Late last month, about 600 conservatives from around the country descended on Washington to press House members to pass immigration reform this year.
The effort, which included business and religious leaders and law enforcement officials, was organized in part by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Fwd.us, the political advocacy group launched by Facebook Inc. co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Obama met with business leaders at the White House last week to urge them to push the House to pass the legislation.
"There's no reason why we can't get this done before the end of the year," Obama told them before the meeting began.
But time is running out. Still, supporters have continued to try to rally support.
Keating went public with his case Monday.
A self-described Ronald Reagan Republican, Keating invoked the memory of the former president and his support for the 1986 immigration overhaul in urging passage of the bill.
"Unfortunately, too many conservatives — though they aspire to walk in Reagan's footsteps — have forgotten that immigration reform is the most Republican of causes," said Keating, who was governor of Oklahoma from 1994 to 2002.
"We cannot support open borders for trade but not for people," he wrote. "We cannot make America stronger and more prosperous by excluding tomorrow's talent and industry."
William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee, said Keating and other supporters of the Senate immigration bill will cost the country "millions more American jobs" and "taxpayer resources" by luring more immigrants to come to the U.S. illegally.
"Frank Keating would ask us to follow Reagan as an example on immigration when Reagan's amnesty of 1986, and the unfulfilled promises of better immigration enforcement in that bill, are why we have 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants in America today," Gheen said.
Keating argued that the U.S. needs immigrants of "all skill levels to help build the 21st century economy."
He cited a Congressional Budget Office report that the Senate immigration reform bill would cut the federal budget deficit by $900 billion over the next 20 years and, by 2033, would be increasing total economic output 5.4%.
"Immigrants are coming here to work, not to become dependent on the state," Keating said. "People don't make perilous journeys and risk their life savings and sometimes their lives for the goal of getting a welfare check, a food-stamp card or a housing voucher."
He said the Senate bill "protects the rule of law by securing the border and ensuring that only law-abiding immigrants receive legal status." The bill creates a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country without legal status.
Obama could help ease Republican concerns about border security by promising not to delay implementation or issue waivers that would weaken the legislation, Keating said.
But the potential economic benefit of immigration reform was not the only reason Republicans should support it, he said.
Keating cited a 1989 speech by Reagan in which he said the doors of the nation should be "open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here."
"America was the world's first nation to be based on principles, not ethnicity," Keating said. "It is unconscionable to leave a class of neighbors who share our values in perpetual second-class status."