Allowing more legal immigration would create desirable new jobs and help fill jobs citizens don't want, reform advocates and business executives said at a Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce meeting Wednesday.

The message was both counterintuitive -- wouldn't more immigrants compete for scarce jobs here? -- and politically charged, coming as tough-on-immigration Republican presidential candidates roll in to South Carolina to campaign.

The idea that immigration creates jobs hangs upon highly educated foreign-born residents, many of whom come to the United States to earn advanced degrees. Some stay and build companies, and more should be encouraged to do so, said immigration lawyer and author Richard Herman.

In Congress, that argument has already been embraced by some Republicans and Democrats, with legislative efforts pending to allow foreign-born people who earn postgraduate degrees in high-skill fields to stay and work in the U.S.

Herman said building a strong

economy means attracting people with the best skills from all over the world, just as professional U.S. sports teams recruit players from abroad.

Jeremy Robbins, a policy adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, representing the Bloomberg-affiliated Partnership for a New American Economy, told the large Chamber audience that immigration policies that put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage is "the real immigration problem" but gets less attention than issues such as border fences.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley also urged a focus on what immigration policies mean "to the success of our business community and our economy."

If highly skilled immigrants and their children create jobs in the United States -- Google co-founder Sergey Brin and the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs were cited by Herman as examples -- low-skill immigrants fill jobs that U.S. citizens don't want, the chamber audience was told by South Carolina business executives.

Roger Warren, president of Kiawah Island Golf Resort, said that when the resort recently advertised 150 seasonal jobs, just 10 people applied and only three were qualified. He said it should be easier to hire seasonal workers from overseas under existing federal programs.

"It's a simple reality that we can't find American workers to fill these positions," Warren said.

Steven Mungo, CEO of Irmo homebuilder, The Mungo Companies, said if South Carolina enforces tough show-us-your-papers rules like Georgia and Alabama have done, it will harm the state's economy. He said some of his Hispanic employees have refused to work in Georgia due to harassment.

"If we enforce immigration the way they have in some other states, we won't have a housing recovery in South Carolina," Mungo said.

He said that, despite high levels of poverty and unemployment, there are jobs U.S. citizens either don't want, or don't have the skills to perform.

"There are painfully few people born in the U.S. who know how to do things," he said, citing frame carpentry as an example.

Portions of a South Carolina immigration enforcement law authored by state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, set to take effect Jan. 1, were put on hold last month by a federal judge in Charleston.

The law remains in dispute pending U.S. Supreme Court action on a similar Arizona law. Opponents of such laws say they will, among other things, lead to harassment of residents based upon their appearance.

Grooms said he makes a clear distinction between legal and illegal immigration.

"Legal immigration has always helped this country, because we are a country of immigrants, but illegal immigration must be stopped," he said.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, drew similar distinctions at a campaign stop in Ridgeville.

Santorum, noting that his grandfather immigrated to the U.S., said immigration can be a good thing, but he supports securing the nation's border with Mexico.