WASHINGTON – At the first congressional hearing this year on immigration reform, the debate boiled down to piecemeal vs. comprehensive.

Vivek Wadhwa, author of The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent, said the United States must retain highly skilled foreign workers if it is to lead the global race for technology development.

“We have a brain drain for the first time in our history,” Wadhwa said in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. “America has always been a nation of immigrants, not emigrants, but it’s happening right now. If we wait three years to fix the skilled problem, we could lose out.”

Wadhwa, vice president of academics and innovation at Singularity University in Silicon Valley, advocated providing all undocumented workers with green cards immediately to fix the “skilled immigrant program.”

“These toxic battles about citizenship can be decided a decade from now when the economy of America has evolved,” Wadhwa said. “Right now, these people just want to be legalized and given the right to be able to live here with dignity.”

The committee met today to discuss plans for legislation going forward, with no bill on the table yet.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., questioned whether a broad immigration reform bill could be passed if Congress chooses to simply deal one-by-one with non-controversial matters.

“Looking at this politically and practically, do you think we would ever come back and finish the job?” Richmond said. “I think it has to be a comprehensive approach or we’ll never get to the hard part.”

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro said providing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants is in the best interest of the country. He emphasized comprehensive reform, reminding the panel that the last time piecemeal legislation was introduced – last year’s STEM Visa Bill – it never made it through the Senate.

“America is watching. Let’s get this done,” Castro said.

Judiciary Committee members stressed the importance of family-based– as well as skilled-based—policies in admitting foreign workers. Witnesses at the hearing said skilled foreign workers should be allowed to bring other family members along after they are admitted to the U.S.

“This is not a zero-sum game,” Castro said of the family separation issue. “There is no reason that we need to choose between these.”

Under the 1965 immigration law, H-1B nonimmigrant visas allow U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers. However, family members of visa-holders cannot obtain drivers licenses, open bank accounts or hold jobs depending on where they live.

“Family members of H-1B workers live as second class citizens, and because of this, these skilled workers are getting frustrated and returning home,” said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif.

Wadhwa went as far to say that women in Saudi Arabia have more rights than the spouses of H-1B workers.

Panelist Michael Teitelbaum, a member of the 1997 U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, said the unification of immigrant families and admission of highly skilled workers and refugees should be a priority in any legislation. In the contentious climate of the debate, a group of demonstrators rose as conservative Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., was introduced, chanting “undocumented, unafraid.” They were promptly escorted from the premises by police.