The issue of how to generate a new immigration “narrative” in the United States was at the heart of the debate in a discussion and Q&A panel hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on June 15.

The panel featured Alejandro Mayorkas, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; Edward Alden, a senior fellow at CFR; and Washington Post columnist Vivek Wadhwa of Harvard and Duke universities and Berkeley.

The panelists discussed immigration law, the status of spouses of immigrants and the debate over federal and state immigration policy, among other topics. But the overarching theme of the event was that U.S. policy should focus more on the benefits that immigrants provide to the nation’s culture and economy.

Data, including a new report released by the bipartisan Partnership for A New American Economy, show that immigrants create opportunities for surrounding communities and the national economy. Yet politicians, some of whom have called proposals to give illegal immigrants a path to legalization “amnesty,” have found little support from voters on adopting policies that would increase the flow of immigrants to the United States.

“The new horizon doesn’t match the old structure,” Mayoraks said of America’s current immigration laws, which can make it difficult for many immigrants to get green cards so that they can join the workforce or start businesses.

For example, the current limit on H1-B visas — granted to individuals pursuing education or working in a “highly specialized” area of knowledge -- is capped at 65,000 per fiscal year. H-2B seasonal worker visas are capped at 66,000. This leaves thousands of qualified applicants from gainng entry into the United States.

Wadhwa took it a step further, saying that U.S. immigration policy was “in the ’60s, and we don’t even realize it.”

The discussion also touched on the rights of female spouses of immigrants. Wadhwa noted the H-4 visa, which is available to the spouses and children (up to age 21) of H1-B visa holders. The H-4 visa does not authorize the holder to work in the United States and does not generate a Social Security number. The scenario prompted Wadhwa to declare the rights of some female immigrants to be only slightly better than the rights of women in Saudi Arabia.

At least two members of the audience brought up the role state governments should play in determining immigration laws. The issue has become a major policy debate since new laws were recently enacted in Arizona and Alabama cracking down on illegal immigration.

Mayorkas said that since immigration was a question of national security, the regulation of entry and egress from the United States should be handled at the federal level.

What do you think: Do we need a new immigration narrative? If so, what should it be? Share your thoughts in the comments below.