Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Wednesday February 5th, 2014, 4:32pm

Former House Speaker Hastert, Cardinal George Push For Immigration Reform

Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Cardinal Francis George joined Illinois business leaders at a discussion in Chicago Tuesday afternoon to press House Republicans to pass immigration reform this year.

Hastert, a Republican who served as House speaker from 1999 to 2007, said immigration reform should accomplish two key goals. He says there should be a pathway to legalization and eventual citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. The nation's borders also have to be deemed secure, and checkpoints need to be open and able to facilitate people coming in and out of the country, the former lawmaker said.

"Where are we today in Congress," he asked those at the event, hosted by the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition. "Is there a possibility that we can do that? I think so. I am not going to name names, but I sat down with a couple of those [ House GOP] leaders within the last eight or nine months and talked about these issues, and I think there's an understanding, and I think it's time that we move forward."

Cardinal George, the archbishop of Chicago, joined Hastert in support of a pathway to citizenship. He also called on the federal government to halt deportations.

"We should end deportations because they break up families, and the family, not the individual, the family is the basic unit of our society," George told reporters in remarks after the event, held at DePaul University. "If you break up families deliberately, you're going to have a much weaker society, and besides, the human suffering of the children especially and also the spouse." 

"The last several years we've deported more people than we ever did before," he added. "Go back to deporting criminals, certainly of course, but stop the deportations that break up families."

George said he's had a "respectable conversation" with some members of the Illinois congressional delegation about the "principles of respecting people" and "how that can be put into better legislation than we have now around immigration."

It's time for Republicans and Democrats in the House "to open their doors" and "listen to each other" on the issue, the former House speaker added.

"I saw the leader of the other party though say well she's not going to let anybody vote for any legislation that doesn't have immediate citizenship. We'll I don't think that's going to happen," Hastert stressed. "You have to be open on both sides. And all of a sudden you say, 'Well, I'm not going to vote for anything but or let anybody else vote for anything else but,' then all of sudden you're putting roadblocks in the way of getting some stuff [done]."

Back in June, the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform package that would create a pathway to citizenship for America’s more than 11 million undocumented immigrants. House Democrats introduced a measure that mirrors the Senate's bill in October.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH,8), however, has said House Republicans "have no intention of ever going to conference" on the Senate's bill. Instead, Boehner has insisted that he wants to see the House take up immigration reform in a piecemeal fashion, rather than passing one large, comprehensive measure.

Last week, Republican House members unveiled a set of broad immigration reform principles, which include eventual legal status for undocumented immigrants living in the country. The principles, however, would not allow undocumented immigrants to gain citizenship, just legal status. House Republicans also want various border and interior security requirements to be installed as well as a visa tracking system. The immigration reform blueprint calls for changes to the temporary worker and high-skilled visa programs and the creation of a new E-verify system for employers. Click through for more on the House Republican's principles.

Despite the immigration blueprint from the House GOP, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Tuesday said it does not look like a reform package could pass in Congress this year.

“I think we have sort of an irresolvable conflict here,” McConnell said. “The Senate insists on comprehensive [legislation]. The House says it won’t go to conference with the Senate on comprehensive and wants to look at [it] step by step. I don’t see how you get to an outcome this year with the two bodies in such a different place."

But Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum who attended the Chicago discussion, optimistically said George and Hastert helped elevate the need for immigration reform.

"Certainly having the Cardinal and Speaker Hastert make a statement is pretty significant," she told Progress Illinois after the discussion. "Having the [former] speaker of the Republican party of the U.S. House make the statement that he made today, that we need comprehensive immigration reform, hopefully sends a very strong signal to his colleagues in the House today to get on with it ... The time is now."

Dave Bender, co-chair of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition and executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Illinois, noted that immigration reform would "jumpstart" both the local and national economies. 

In a statement, the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition pointed to research from the American Action Network, which found that 105,923 jobs in Illinois would be created by the passage of immigration reform legislation, and the state's economic output would also increase by $1.8 billion. At the national level, immigration reform would boost the U.S. economy by 4.8 percent over the next two decades and trim the deficit by $1.2 trillion, according to the research.

"It is clear we are seeking the support of Republican members of Congress to support businesses and to support comprehensive reform," Bender stressed.

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