Illinois leaders advocate for immigration reform

By Metro Editor

As immigration reform legislation hovers in Congress, Illinois leaders are urging lawmakers to pass the reform, arguing it would boost the economy and give the struggling Republican Party a boost.

Business leaders, politicians and Cardinal Francis George took part in a panel discussion Feb. 4 at DePaul University, 243 S. Wabash Ave., during which they discussed the merits of immigration reform.

Immigrants are a viable part of the workforce and are essential to the service market, according to Billy Lawless, president of the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform and Chicago restaurant owner.

“The hospitality industry depends on immigrants,” Lawless said. “They are the future of our business … We must stand for immigration reform to retain the strength of our workforce and the economy as a whole.”

Lawless, an immigrant from Ireland, said immigrants also have entrepreneurial value, citing that he started his own business and employs more than 300 people.

According to an Aug. 8 study by the American Action Network, immigration reform in Illinois would add more than 3,200 highly skilled workers to the local market, resulting in 11,000 new jobs in 2014 and more than 19,000 jobs by 2020. It would also contribute more than $1.1 billion to Illinois’ economy.

David Bender, executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Illinois, said immigration reform would make the country more globally competitive with the addition of new talent and skills. He said right now the country is not competitive.

“Businesses are being short-changed by not fielding the best team that we can field to remain competitive,” Bender said. “We need students across the globe to attend our universities and eventually become business owners.”

However, some organizations think immigration reform would be detrimental to the economy and eliminate jobs. Kristen Williamson, spokeswoman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said granting legal citizenship to people illegally living in the country would make jobs more scarce because the market would become more competitive.

“Expanding immigration hurts American workers, especially unemployed Americans,” Williamson said. “[Immigrants] would flood the labor market at the time where we have a labor surplus. There is no job that Americans aren’t already doing in all job sectors.”

Williamson said legislators should instead focus on helping current citizens because many states struggle with high unemployment, including Illinois, which has the nation’s third highest unemployment rate.

Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, said there is a moral obligation to help and welcome those who are seeking to improve their lives by immigrating to America, even if they do so illegally. George said it is wrong that people currently living in the country without legal permission have no representation and are viewed as criminals. He also said the deportation destroys families.

“In our history and in our mindset, outlaws have no protections,” George said. “[People living in the U.S. without legal permission are] integrated into our economic life, into our social life, to our churches and schools and social clubs, but they are never seen because they’re outlaws, therefore their future is not secure.”

George said the deportation of non-criminal people living in the country without legal permission must end. He also said there needs to be more respect for the politicians making these decisions because there are pressures from voters involved that citizens do not understand.

Bender said political prejudice toward the Illinois Republican Party’s stance on immigration reform has hindered the party’s strength. He said Illinois’ Republicans need the support of immigrants to maintain the size of their following.

“This country works best when there are two viable political parties,” Bender said at the event. “Republicans need to replenish their base and the Latino and Asian community offer great hope for that viability in the state of GOP.”

Dennis Hastert, former speaker of the House, said he advocates for immigration reform because legalization can provide immigrants with opportunities to apply for higher paying jobs and improve their economic status.

“They are productive people and our economy really couldn’t operate without that group,” Hastert said. “Every one of them takes the first step, and unless those people have some legitimacy, they can never move forward.”