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Immigrants can make it in Chicago

Every American family enjoys their own traditions on the 4th of July. Yet, we share a common love for this great country and an abiding belief in those founding ideals that drew generations of immigrants to America who dreamed of contributing to its promise.

I was honored to participate in a very special celebration of those ideals this week at the Cultural Center when 71 of the newest Americans took the oath of citizenship.

When the first fireworks light up the Chicago skyline, those newest members of the American family will not only be able to celebrate their first Independence Day as citizens; they will also celebrate the US Senate’s historic vote passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Now is the time for all of us to call on the House of Representatives to take quick action and pass a comprehensive immigration bill that is true to our values as a nation and will create value for our city long into the future.

As we reflect on our history, we recognize that the City of Big Shoulders was built on the shoulders of immigrants, and our future depends on the contributions of immigrants no less than did our past.

One half of all new businesses every year in Chicago are started by immigrants.

Immigrants not only make up the backbone of our workforce, they stand at the vanguard of the new knowledge economy. One quarter of high-tech startups have at least one immigrant founder.

Without comprehensive immigration reform we will leave undocumented workers in the shadows and turn our back on economic growth. Without the contribution of undocumented immigrants, Illinois would lose $25.6 billion in economic activity, $11.4 billion in gross state product, and approximately 120,000 jobs.

All of these statistics speak to one fundamental truth: to be pro-small business means to be pro-immigration reform; they go hand in hand. And in so many ways, to be a Chicagoan is to be a part of the immigrant story. From the diverse mom-and-pop stores along Devon Avenue to the bustle of 26th street in Little Village to the Polish community on Milwaukee Avenue, from Greek town to Ukrainian Village to Chinatown, our immigrant past is the thread that ties Chicago’s neighborhoods together, and it is the key to our future.

I recently met a young man named Alejandro Morales who wants nothing more than to be a United State Marine. While his friends have been able to enlist in the armed forces, Alejandro has been left behind because, through no fault of his own, he was brought to this country as a child without proper documentation.

But he has not given up hope. He has said, “In my heart without a doubt I am an American.”

Alejandro is part of a generation of immigrants who dream not about what they can get from America, but what they give. They represent the highest ideals of America and they are the face of immigration reform.

When I hear their stories, I think of the story of my grandfather who came to Chicago in 1917 to escape the pogroms of Eastern Europe, without speaking a word of English and to live with a third cousin whom he had never met. People often ask me if I think my grandfather could have imagined that he was traveling to a city that would one day elect his grandson mayor. In fact, I think that is exactly the kind of city he believed he was coming to. That is what I want parents who have come to this city to provide a better life for children to believe as well.

It is that sense of opportunity that made generation of immigrants, just like the 71 who took the oath yesterday, to journey to Chicago, the most American of American cities.

As we come together with our families tomorrow to celebrate our love for this great country, let us remember that each of our stories began with our own family members coming to America and finding a kind and generous country, eager to open its doors to their energies and talents. Let us remember that our identity as a city and a nation of immigrants is responsible for all that we are and all we can become in the future.

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