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Jim Edgar, biz execs urge Mark Kirk to back immigration bill

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.)

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.)

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Updated: July 12, 2013 6:32AM



As the immigration debate heats up in Washington this week, former Gov. Jim Edgar and a group of Illinois business leaders are urging U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk to put his political muscle behind a bill that they say would resolve an economic, if not a moral issue facing the Land of Lincoln.

Fearing that efforts to reform immigration laws may begin to unravel in Congress this week, the group of CEOs wrote a letter urging the Illinois delegation in Washington to back a Senate measure that would overhaul immigration.

While the letter, obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times, calls for immigration reform to boost the economy, interviews reveal a targeted call on Republicans — specifically Kirk (R-Ill.), who has not divulged where he stands — to champion reform.

“We don’t know when Sen. Kirk is going to take a position. We need Sen. Kirk to put his shoulder behind this here as quickly as possible,” said former Exelon CEO John Rowe. “He’s an old friend, I wish him well. I just hope he will put himself into it promptly.”

Rowe said he has spoken to Kirk on the topic, but “I have no specifics from him.”

On the political side, Edgar said for Republicans, backing immigration reform is a path to political salvation, pointing to lackluster Latino support for the GOP in the 2012 election.

On Monday, Kirk’s office said the senator is reviewing the legislation.

“Sen. Kirk has long said that any immigration reform proposal must first restore the American people’s confidence in their government’s ability to control the border. Once that confidence is restored, Sen. Kirk believes bipartisan reform can improve our broken immigration system,” spokesman Lance Trover said. “Senator Kirk will closely review the bill passed out of the Judiciary Committee with these principles in mind.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was a member of the birpartisan group of senators who introduced an immigration reform bill earlier this spring.

The bipartisan Senate bill would lay out a 13-year path to citizenship for millions of immigrants; include more money for border security; require employers to verify workers’ legal status, and expand visa programs for some workers.

Given the heavy influx of immigrants in Chicago as well as Downstate, Edgar said in Illinois, reform is not just about politics and the economy.

“This is a moral issue. We have hundreds of thousands of immigrants some are hardworking, good citizens. It’s time to take them out of the corners and darkness that has existed here,” Edgar, a Republican, told the Sun-Times on Monday.

“I hope the delegation recognizes that something needs to be done, something needs to happen now — not later. I would hope that none of the Illinois delegation would be an obstacle to immigration reform. Sen. Kirk or any of the delegation, I would hope, would be supportive of this.”

Kirk is seen as a potentially critical vote in the Senate, in part because Illinois one of the top immigrant-rich states in the country. His support could be bellwether in the debate. Kirk has positioned himself as part of the more moderate wing of the GOP, for example leading a bipartisan but ultimately unsuccessful effort on gun-safety reform and becoming the second Republican U.S. senator to support the legalization of gay marriage. The immigration measure needs 60 votes to pass the Senate. Even if every one of the 54 Democrats supports it, which observers say is unlikely, six more votes would be needed to avoid a Republican filibuster.

Those backing the bill that emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee fear Republicans who don’t want to hand President Barack Obama a clean victory are pushing for amendments that may tank the proposal, including a steep spike in funding for border security.

“Their priority ought to be Illinois’ economy, not border security,” Edgar said of any Illinois delegates who cite a security provision as a necessity. “We spent billions on border security. I think the numbers have shown the borders are as secure now as in recent memory. . . . I think it’s time we do something about the rest of immigration.”

Edgar said he thinks political officials are more likely to respond to the gold-plated list of business people who signed the letter, including Rowe; Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman; Motorola Solutions CEO Greg Brown; Illinois Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Doug Whitley; Ty Fahner, president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, and others.

“We urge our two Illinois Senators to do what is right for our state, our economy, our businesses and our communities — support common sense immigration reform,” the letter reads.

Rowe left Exelon last year. Exelon contributed more than $33,000 to Kirk in his 2010 run for Senate, ranking it 19th out of 20 top contributors in that cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“Employers want more people on both ends of the job spectrum. We need more high-talented people for hospitals, for research labs, for doctors,” Rowe said. Likewise, there’s a need for workers in the field of child care and home care, lawn care and agricultural work, he said.

“There are simply lots of basic jobs that aren’t being filled into today’s workforce,” Rowe said. “I’m a Republican, I believe deeply in markets, I believe in property rights, I believe in paying taxes. . . . If my political party keeps looking indifferent to immigrants, we lose all their friends and relatives who are here.”



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