Leaders from across Illinois are becoming more vocal about their desire for Congress to approve an immigration overhaul. Staying outside of the political debate, mayors and university officials have a common theme in their message: a comprehensive bill would provide a boost to local communities.
As the dust settled from this month's debt crisis, Illinois’ congressional delegation received more reminders about another issue on the front burner in Washington: immigration.
Those reminders included a letter signed by more than twenty mayors from across the state. These municipal leaders aren’t pushing for a particular bill. But they say getting something substantial passed through would help create jobs and increase revenues for their respective cities.
Elgin mayor Dave Kaptain signed the letter. He says more than 40-percent of people living in his city are of Hispanic descent. He notes that many of the immigrants living in Elgin are here legally. But he also says there are many undocumented residents as well.
“I think there are a number of opportunities for people that have been here for a few years. We would like to get them into citizenship,” Kaptain said.
For example, Kaptain says they could help re-certify working professionals who lost their licenses the moment they left their native country for a better life in America.
“A registered nurse, or a physician – that’s something that we would need to work to, is to provide recertification for these people. They would become a viable, important source for the local economy,” Kaptain said.
And it’s not just local governments that are speaking up. At a recent public forum, NIU president Doug Baker said current immigration laws get in the way of undocumented immigrants in their pursuit of higher education.
“Sometimes we look at this is as a problem, but it’s really a resource,” Baker said.
Baker cites statistics that only 5 to 10 percent of undocumented students in the U.S. go on to college. He says that creates a cycle of poverty.
“We’re putting barriers in front of students who want to succeed and make their lives better and their families’ lives better,” Baker said.
At that same forum, Harry Alten of the Illinois Specialty Growers Association told the audience the current system makes it hard retain migrant workers who possess the skills farmers are looking for.
When discussing the matter with policymakers, Alten says he grows frustrated when he hears them recite current unemployment numbers.
“We can’t get local people. They call it entry-level jobs – I call it skilled-labor,” Alten said.
Jeremy Groves is an economist at NIU. He says tighter immigration policies in recent years have negatively affected the agricultural sector. He says that's why states like Illinois would especially benefit from a comprehensive overhaul.
Groves says the state's urban areas would also stand to benefit.
"If you look at places like Rockford, that have high unemployment rates, part of that is because they don't have industries. If you have a large pool of workers, especially low-cost workers, that's going to make it easier to attract firms," Groves said.
Some opponents of an immigration overhaul say it's not fair to provide a pathway to citizenship, and the job opportunities they would bring, to those who entered this country illegally. They say the focus should remain on the millions of American citizens still looking for work.
But Groves says the low-wage factor still applies when discussing the fairness of a sweeping immigration bill.
"Yes, there are people who do not have jobs here in the United States that are looking for work. But are they looking for work in the same sector that most of these immigrants are going to be looking into?" Groves said.
And while municipal and educational leaders are making a business case for congressional action, observers say Illinois' delegation will probably face more pressure in the coming weeks from activists who also want a comprehensive plan.