Immigration reform is not dead, according to a group of elected officials who on Tuesday met in Chicago to discuss the benefits of providing a streamlined path to citizenship for America’s more than 11 million undocumented immigrants.
“So many people in America feel that comprehensive immigration reform is dead, that somehow it doesn’t have any possibility of being enacted into law. And I think, if anything, our presence here on this panel this morning, says that it’s alive and well,” said U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D, IL-4). “The conversation is continuing.”
Hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Illinois Business Coalition, the panel discussion was held at the Standard Club, located at 320 S. Plymouth Ct.
While the panelists disagreed on a few divisive partisan topics, such as border security, each politician — Gutierrez, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL,16) and Mayor Rahm Emanuel — agreed that immigration reform would serve as a boon to the American economy.
“I don’t think there’s anybody, right, left, center, that would not raise their hand if I asked, ‘do we have a broken immigration system,’” said Kinzinger. “Everybody agrees there’s a broken system… This isn’t left versus right, it doesn’t need to be left versus right, this is about the future of our country. How do we address this, and how do we fix it?”
The U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill In June that lays out a five- or 10-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria and pay fines. The bill also appropriates $46 billion for increased border security.
In October, House Democrats introduced a nearly identical bill. But Republican House leaders, who previously rebuffed the Senate’s bill, have not acted on either piece of legislation.
GOP leaders are instead taking a piecemeal approach to immigration reform legislation and last month unveiled a set of broad immigration reform principles. The standards provide undocumented immigrants the opportunity to live legally in the country, but do not provide a path to actual citizenship.
“(Immigration reform) really requires a bipartisan solution,” said Gutierrez. “We can’t get it done unless Republicans and Democrats agree.” (Click through to view more of Tuesday’s panel discussion.)
According to a recent survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 77 percent of polled business leaders in the Midwest think it’s important for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation by the end of 2014.
For about a month in 2013, the organization surveyed 500 business managers and executives from the 12-state Midwest region. The poll also revealed that 65 percent of respondents support the legislation passed by the Senate last year, and 88 percent of those who have hired immigrants say their experience with immigrant labor was positive.
“When you’re looking at how immigration reform helps us, from a pure economic standpoint, you have the small businesses that are throughout our community neighborhoods, like on 26th Street, that drive a huge amount of sales tax revenue,” Emanuel said. “And, whether it from Poland, Ireland, Mexico, China, South Korea, industries and companies in those countries will invest where there is a big population that they can service.”
Emanuel said the population of Mexican-Americans living in Chicago equals that of the fourth-largest city in Mexico. Last year, he added, Chicago led the country in direct foreign investment.
Kinzinger agreed that immigration reform could help the American economy grow, but he emphasized the importance of increasing security along the country’s border with Mexico. GOP leaders, he said, would need enforcement guarantees.
“There’s a belief on the right side of the aisle that the president is not eager to follow the laws that are passed,” Kinzinger said. “You look at the health care law and parts that have been delayed and pushed off and stuff. So this is a raw reality. There’s a belief in that.”
“And so there’s a concern that a comprehensive immigration reform package would lead to, somewhat what it did under Reagan, that the border security piece doesn’t happen and the other pieces do,” Kinzinger said. “If we can put a guarantee in there that you have border security, and then the next steps, even if it’s a comprehensive package, I think we can get this done.”
But Emanuel was quick to respond to Kinzinger, saying President Obama’s record on border security enforcement, even without the legislation, speaks for itself.
Roughly 368,600 people were deported in fiscal year 2013, representing about a 10 percent drop from fiscal year 2012, which saw more than 400,000 deported, which was a record high for the nation.
"I would venture to say the attack on the president is more about camouflaging the differences within the Republican Party,” Emanuel said.
Kinzinger responded by saying a “step-by-step” approach to immigration reform legislation could come out of the House after pro-reform voters weed out certain candidates and “we get past some of the primaries.”
“We’re a lot closer than the media and, frankly, most people think we are,” Kinzinger said.
Gutierrez added that, while he is willing to support stronger border security as a method of “getting it done,” immigration reform should provide an avenue to citizenship.
“I can’t stop — nor do I want to — 2,000 Latinos turning 18 every day in America, angry at a political party that they feel is being unfair to them on immigration,” Gutierrez said.