By Neal Peirce

Presidential debates are aflame with calls for border moats and electrified fences. Attacks are launched on any candidate’s past pro-immigrant positions. The Department of Homeland Security boasts of deporting 397,000 undocumented immigrants in a year — and promising more to come. Actual laws, Arizona- and Alabama-style, are clearly designed to instill fear in immigrant communities.

That’s one America, 2011.

But there’s another, with cooler heads. It’s a broad swath of local officials seeking to protect — and where there’s need, to legalize — their immigrant communities. And it’s an amazing array of American corporations insisting that fresh immigration into the United States, especially in times of nagging recession, is needed to invigorate our economy.

John Cook, mayor of El Paso, directly on the Mexican border, recently put the local officials’ position this way:

“Our immigration system is broken. When we have a demand for a half-million new workers each year, and no way to bring them in legally, it’s an invitation for illegal immigration.”

There’s priority need to find a streamlined process to legalize the status of today’s 12 million immigrants who overstayed their visas or came here illegally, said Cook: “Immigrants are becoming suspects, and we have to remember we are a nation built on immigration.”

Cook was speaking at a forum of the Partnership for a New American Economy, organized last year by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch to press for immigration reform based on its huge economic potential. The group includes dozens of CEOs including Steve Ballmer (Microsoft), Jim McNerney (Boeing) and Walt Ager (Walt Disney), as well as such mayors as Phil Gordon (Phoenix), Michael Nutter (Philadelphia) and Antonio Villaraigosa (Los Angeles).

Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies, Bloomberg notes, were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. He describes newcomers to America as “dreamers and risk-takers who are driven to succeed” — and not just in earlier times. Immigrants from such nations are Ecuador, Mexico, China, Russia, Korea, India and Pakistan are a main reason, said Bloomberg, that New York City itself rebounded so strongly from hard times it faced in the 1970s and 1980s.

And on the high tech side, immigrants were founders of such firms as Google, Yahoo, eBay and Intel.

But what’s U.S. policy today? Only 15 percent of the permanent visas the country offers are for skilled individuals. Eighty-five percent go for family reunification or refugees from harm. The imbalance “is sabotaging our economy,” says Bloomberg, because skilled workers not only spark creation of many new jobs but also provide knowledge of foreign markets that will help U.S. firms increase their exports.

Next reform idea: make it easy, not a tortuous path, for foreign students who earn advanced degrees in the U.S. to remain here. Foreigners account for a stunning two-thirds of those earning computer-science or engineering PhDs from U.S. institutions. Making it tough for them to remain is “about the dumbest thing we could possibly do,” says Bloomberg.

Third idea: Stop turning away so many entrepreneurs who want to come to the U.S. and start businesses. And fourth, dramatically expand the number of temporary H-1B visas designed to fill critical gaps our workforce.

Failure to take those steps, Bloomberg charges, will undermine our economy, indeed “put our nation’s future at risk.”

How alarming then when our national political debate on immigration sinks to the level of shibboleths — how to keep more of “them” out, or expel millions already here?

Plus, the economic argument doesn’t apply exclusively to skilled immigrants. Some 70 million immigrants have come to the United States over time — a record no other nation on earth can match. Huge proportions of those millions came with scant education and no green cards — just irrepressible ambition to better their own and their children’s lives.

The same phenomenon would likely be repeated if a course to legal residency could be opened to our 12 million undocumented residents. Richard Herman, Cleveland attorney and co-author of the book “Immigrant, Inc.” cites a University of California-Los Angeles study that estimated legalizing all our undocumented immigrants would, over a decade, add some $1.5 trillion to the U.S. economy as the immigrants moved confidently forward to buy homes, cars, and send their children to college.

Presently some Republican House members, under business pressure, are softening a bit on the immigration issue. The passion for a fiercely defended border with Mexico hasn’t weakened, but there’s more reported interest in stemming the drain of U.S.-trained scientists back to their home countries.

“I am troubled by the demonization of immigrants, legal or illegal, in our party,” Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) recently told the New York Times.

Message to Republican presidential debaters and state legislators considering restrictive new laws: Please tune in. It’s not just immigrants — it’s our well-being as a nation that’s at stake.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is