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Thursday, July 25, 2013 07:48 am

Davis and Schock under pressure on immigration

Leaders from the religious, law enforcement and business realms met in Springfield last week to put public pressure on Illinois Republican congressmen regarding immigration reform. They said fixing the “horribly broken system” is a moral obligation and an economic necessity.

The Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce last week hosted “Bibles, Badges and Business for Immigration,” a nationwide network of religious, law enforcement and business leaders supporting immigration reform. The Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate passed an immigration reform bill earlier this month, but the Republican-held U.S. House is unlikely to pass the bill without significant changes.

“Our goal here, quite frankly, and to be very direct, is to help downstate Illinois congresspeople recognize that they need to get on the right side of the immigration [reform],” said Doug Whitley, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.

Whitley, a former Republican candidate for Illinois governor, aimed his comments at Republicans Rep. Aaron Schock of Peoria and Rep. Rodney Davis of Taylorville. Both congressmen represent part of Springfield and have indicated willingness to consider reform proposals that include border security provisions. Whitley said he recently sent back a fundraising letter from a Republican political candidate with a note: “Not till you take the right position on immigration.”

The reform bill passed by the Senate would allow immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally to stay, provided they pay back taxes, pass a background check and meet other requirements. The bill would beef up the verification system for employment eligibility, while also cracking down on employers who illegally hire immigrants without work eligibility. Immigrants would be ineligible for certain forms of welfare, and the federal government would reinforce border security with more guards and more technology.

Mark Peters, corporate counsel for machinery manufacturer Caterpillar, spoke about immigration-related problems faced by businesses. Peters said Caterpillar would prefer to hire only American workers, but U.S. colleges don’t turn out enough “STEM” – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – graduates to meet the demand. However, with national work visa caps, Peters said U.S. immigration law forces Caterpillar to give foreign-born workers a choice when their temporary work visas expire: either quit and go home, or leave your family behind for a year while working overseas.

 “The current system, the way it’s structured, puts companies like Caterpillar at a distinct disadvantage with our foreign competition in attracting and retaining world-class STEM talent,” Peters said.

Rev. Christopher Brey of Ashland, coordinator of Hispanic Ministries for the Diocese of Springfield, said the Catholic Church takes a special interest in immigration reform because many immigrants to the U.S. are Catholic.

“I have an obligation, based upon who I am and who I committed myself to be some 16 years ago when I began in Hispanic ministry, to literally not just help …but to be an instrument of change,” Brey said. “Why? Because they do not have a voice. … [There are] two options: we send 13 million people back home…or we change the laws in this nation.”

Kane County Sheriff Patrick Perez noted that entering the U.S. without permission is a civil offense, not a criminal offense. It only becomes a crime, he said, if a person is deported for committing a felony and illegally crosses the border again.

Adam Nielsen, director of national legislation and policy development for the Illinois Farm Bureau, said immigrant labor is important for Illinois agriculture because immigrants do jobs Americans refuse to do, such as handling livestock and working on dairy farms.

“You have to look beyond corn and soybeans to see it, but it’s there,” Nielsen said. “These are jobs Americans simply will not work.”

Tim Butler, district chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, attended the meeting as an observer and responded to questions regarding the congressman’s position on immigration. Butler said about 80 percent of correspondence Davis’ office received regarding immigration urged the congressman to oppose reform, and most of it was from individuals, not organizations.

“Not that that’s how we base our decisions completely, but obviously there are unsolicited people who are contacting our office and saying no to the Senate bill, no amnesty, things like that,” Butler said, adding that Davis has met with several groups on all sides of the issue. “Congressman Davis is certainly paying a lot of attention to this issue.”

During a question and answer session, Springfield immigration attorney Jackson Donley expressed dismay that immigrants from different regions are treated differently.

“How am I to look them in the eye and explain to them why they’re paying hundreds of dollars, if not thousands, why they’re waiting years... there’s an entire separate class of people who are able to physically walk across our southern border and simply demand a remedy?” Donley asked. “Can you explain to me what’s fair about that?”

Brey responded by saying the system simply “is not just and fair.”

“That’s the reason it must be changed for all.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

Correx: A previous version of this story misspelled Adam Nielsen's name as "Nielson."

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