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Thursday, June 20, 2013 10:27 am

Illinois leaders campaign for federal immigration reform

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Illinois’ senior senator, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin.
PHOTO BY CHUCK KENNEDY/MCT

Several prominent public figures in Illinois are pushing for passage of a federal immigration reform bill, which President Barack Obama called “the best chance we’ve had in years to fix our broken immigration system.” The Senate could pass the bill by July 4, though it faces an uphill battle in the House of Representatives.

For months, a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” in the Senate has negotiated details of a 1,000-page immigration reform bill known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. The Senate voted on June 11 to begin debating the bill, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he hoped to have it passed by Independence Day. The bill would affect an estimated 11 million people who have immigrated to the U.S. illegally.

Meanwhile, advocacy groups in Springfield and the rest of Illinois are lobbying lawmakers to pass the bill. Seven members of the Springfield-based Faith Coalition for the Common Good were in Washington, D.C., last week to meet with Illinois’ elected officials in the nation’s capital.

Shelly Heideman, executive director of the coalition, said the group had met with Rep. Rodney Davis, R-13, and staff members from the office of Rep. Aaron Schock, R-18. Pastor T. Ray McJunkins of Union Baptist Church, 1405 E. Monroe St., met with Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s chief of staff, as well.

Speaking by phone from Washington, D.C., McJunkins said the meeting with Boehner’s staff went well, but he doesn’t expect the House to take up the Senate’s bill. Instead, the Republican-controlled House wants to create its own plan and vote on it piecemeal, he said. Boehner’s staff also indicated that the House wouldn’t be addressing the coalition’s goal of passing reforms that don’t split up immigrant families.

“It pierces me and takes me back to my ancestry when slaves – a husband and wife – were swept away to an auction block and the children were left elsewhere,” McJunkins said. “Priorities need to be made now.”

Other Illinois groups are also pushing for immigration reform in Washington. Former Illinois governor Jim Edgar, a Republican, and the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition wrote to Illinois’ congressional delegation, urging them to support a bipartisan solution. The group’s letter praised efforts by Illinois’ senior senator, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, who is a member of the Gang of Eight and a cosponsor of the bill.

“Common sense immigration reform is economically sound, politically smart, morally right and more urgent than ever,” Edgar said in the letter. “I am looking to our two Illinois senators to take the lead on pushing forward bipartisan immigration legislation that protects both Illinois’ competitiveness and its communities.”

The reform bill before the Senate is intended to be comprehensive, including moves to avoid splitting up immigrant families, retain more skilled foreign workers, direct more foreign medical doctors to underserved areas and create an eventual pathway to citizenship for certain immigrants.

The bill attempts to incorporate Republican demands by requiring payment of back taxes, requiring immigrants to pass background checks and requiring immigrants to learn English. The bill would beef up the verification system employers use to determine whether a person is eligible to work in the U.S., while also cracking down on employers who hire immigrants without verifying their eligibility. Immigrants would be ineligible for certain forms of welfare, and the federal government would have to hire 3,500 more border protection officers by 2017 while adding more technology like unmanned drones to help monitor the borders.

Despite the concessions and the bipartisan makeup of the Gang of Eight, Republicans are divided on the bill. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., voted against advancing the bill to debate on June 11, a move that garnered a swift and scathing reaction among immigration activists. The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights said Kirk “failed his constituents” and “continues to be out of touch with business, women, faith, labor and community leaders.”

Kirk said in a statement that he couldn’t support the bill until it contained more border security measures like those contained in an amendment offered by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Cornyn’s amendment calls for 10,000 new border agents and requires complete monitoring of the U.S.-Mexico border before any person who immigrated illegally could apply for a green card.

Edgar said he was disappointed by Kirk’s vote, adding that calls for more border security may be merely an excuse to oppose reforms. He said no border will ever be completely secure.

“The Communists couldn’t do that, and they had machine guns,” Edgar joked.

Shelly Heideman with the Faith Coalition dismissed Republican calls for adding more border security measures to the bill.

“They’re trying to emphasize spending more and more money on border control instead of thinking about the humanity of families being torn apart,” Heideman said. “These immigrants are doing jobs Americans don’t want to do and putting food on our tables.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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