WASHINGTON -- More tax cuts, fewer lawsuits, and stronger intellectual property rights were all cited as key factors in preserving the nation's entrepreneurial spirit at the start of the Small Business Administration's annual gala on Wednesday.
Yet, hanging heavy over every issue at the event, part of National Small Business Week, was the topic that has also commanded the national spotlight recently -- immigration reform.
"Ninety-nine percent of undocumented workers work for small businesses, Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told a crowd of several hundred business owners from across the nation. "We have to face up to that reality."
Just days earlier, in support of foreign workers, several hundred thousand demonstrators marched within steps of the Chamber of Commerce building -- where Wednesday's event was held -- and in more than 100 cities nationwide.
Donohue, who supported legalizing undocumented workers en masse, said the biggest challenge facing the U.S. economy in the years ahead will be replenishing the nation's shrinking workforce.
"Where workforce issues hit hardest is small companies," he said.
Sending the estimated 11 million undocumented workers back home -- or jail, as Congress recently proposed -- would create the "largest sucking noise the economy has ever heard," Donohue said.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez called for the issuing of more work visas and green cards to keep those workers in the country.
"There are jobs we need to fill that we cannot fill with Americans," Gutierrez said in the event's keynote speech.
Carl Schramm, president of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City, Mo.-based group that promotes entrepreneurship, said the U.S. needed not only to cultivate talent, but also to attract young innovators from other nations around the world.
Citing reports that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is proposing the doubling tuition fees for foreign graduate students, Shramm said instead they should be handed two papers when they graduate: "A diploma and citizenship."
Yet, beyond economic reality, Gutierrez and others said most foreign workers reflected the same core values of hard work and self-reliance shared by the nation's millions of small-business owners.
"It is who we are and it is what makes us great," Gutierrez said.
President Bush, who has proposed adopting a temporary worker program, is expected to speak at the conference on Thursday.