With the change in majority control of the Senate, the longest-serving Republican, Orrin Hatch (Utah), becomes president pro tempore, the third in the line of succession to the presidency. In an e-mail previewing his plans Hatch’s office advises: “The role of the President Pro Tempore can be broken down into three categories: (1) Presiding over the Senate in the absence of the Vice President and helping to encourage proper process and decorum, (2) preparing for continuity of government as third in line in succession to the Presidency, and (3) acting as an elder statesman within the institution, helping to build consensus and enable the Senate to legislate effectively. The office of President Pro Tempore is a platform to articulate a compelling policy vision and support the party’s leaders in realizing that vision through substantive legislation that is enacted into law.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

It seems that Hatch, a prolific lawmaker in the days when the Senate actually took votes and passed bills, intends to take advantage of his platform. He previously set out a number of goals to “to foster an environment that encourages research and innovation by addressing abusive patent litigation, protecting trade secrets, modernizing the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, strengthening cybersecurity, reforming immigration policy for high-skilled workers, reducing regulatory and tax burdens for innovators, and removing barriers to digital trade.” He reiterates those policy concerns and reiterates his suggestion for immigration reform: “The new Congress has an opportunity to enhance America’s competitive workforce through immigration reform that will streamline the hiring process for high-skilled individuals entering the United States and by investing in STEM education and training.”

While continuing to denounce the president’s unilateral action on immigration — which affords no legal certainty to those to whom it offers deferred deportation — there are some things the GOP Congress can and should do. Much as I would like, a permanent solution to the 11 million here illegally is not in the cards for now. That does not mean Republicans can or should do nothing. Republican immigration reform skeptics keep saying they want a conservative bill, so here is their chance.

They can pass a bill that enhances border security, enacts an e-Verify system for checking authorization to work, and works on a system for flagging visa overstays. Then they can tackle one aspect of the fickle legal immigration system that favors immigrants with attenuated family connections over economically productive, highly qualified workers.

Virtually every credible economist has found that immigration increases growth, tax revenue and wages — with the exception of a modest decrease in wages for those without a high school education. In particular, immigrants are over-represented in high-tech start-ups and new patent filers. So for now, why not reform the immigration system for the brainiacs, the highly credentialed and the entrepreneurs only? No serious person can argue that we don’t have a shortage in some high-tech fields or argue against allowing foreign students with advanced degrees to remain in the country.

For years, supply-side economist Stephen Moore (now with Heritage Foundation) has argued that the economic benefits from increasing visas for highly skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants is an untapped gold mine. In 2001, he wrote:

U.S. firms also desperately need access to the kinds of technically trained workers that created the Silicon Valley prosperity in the first place. This means that over the long term they need better-trained U.S. workers. But it also means they need to be able to hire high-skilled immigrant workers. The immigration laws are pathetically inadequate in this regard. Until a few years ago, U.S. firms were permitted to recruit just 65,000 skill-based immigrants per year under a program called H-1B. In 1998 that cap was raised to approximately 100,000 per year.

That is still too few visas relative to the need and the economic opportunity. We should immediately double or even triple high-skilled immigration visas. These talented engineers, scientists, teachers, and business professionals will not take jobs from American workers — they will almost certainly create jobs by making our industries more profitable and productive.

He’s right, and the disputes over low-skilled immigration and the long-term solution to those here illegally should not prevent passage of border and visa control measures or common-sense, pro-growth immigration reform. But Democrats will never go for it! Perhaps, but let them cast votes against border security and pro-growth, pro-jobs immigration reform. Or come up with a trade (e.g., infrastructure funding) for such an immigration package.

In any case, the president has thrown down the immigration gauntlet on the do-nothing Congress, and Republicans should pick it up by legislatively nixing his unilateral immigration plan, passing effective border security as a precondition to future action on those here illegally and increasing visas for the most economically productive immigrants — who can’t possibly be accused of taking jobs from low- and middle-income Americans. Republicans should be clear that they are amenable to other measures, but for now, if they want to be for something, Hatch’s idea should be on the agenda.