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State businesses push for immigration reform

CHICAGO (AP) – A new, wide-ranging group of Illinois-based businesses, politicians and others said Monday that they hope to recruit 300 CEOs and 1,000 small businesses in the state to push for “common sense” bipartisan immigration reform.

The Illinois Business Immigration Coalition includes leaders from Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc. as well as Motorola Solutions Inc., the University of Illinois, trade groups and immigration rights advocates. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel backs the coalition.

The group’s push comes as Congress gets ready to hammer out the details of a potential immigration law overhaul. Business and labor leaders last week agreed on a broad outline.

Caterpillar CEO Douglas Oberhelman spoke Monday at a kickoff event in Chicago, and said the heavy-equipment manufacturer has trouble filling both high- and lower-skill jobs and that immigration reform could help. The company, he said, regularly puts interns from abroad and who are working on degrees at U.S. universities in higher-skill positions.

“They want to stay and make a real contribution to our company and our country,” he said. “But it’s not easy. The process is tedious. Some Caterpillar employees from China and India have been waiting more than eight years for a green card that would give them permanent residency. These are valued employees, and we lose them.”

Emanuel said the group needs to be a large, statewide and bipartisan coalition, something strong enough for lawmakers in Washington who are facing what they may see as “a tough vote” to know they have widespread support back home.

“There’s a lot of forces that don’t want to see this happen,” Emanuel said. “This is a huge opportunity for us and we should not let it get squandered because of politics.”

The coalition also includes former Gov. Jim Edgar; representatives from DePaul University and the University of Chicago; trade organizations representing the state’s manufacturers, hotels, restaurants and hospitals; the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights; and others.

The push for nationwide immigration reform gained momentum over the weekend when business and labor leaders agreed to a plan for a new visa program that would allow foreign workers into the country, eventually capping the figure at 200,000 a year. Other provisions expected in legislation that could be introduced next week are more visas for high-tech workers, new farmworker visas and a faster path to citizenship for immigrants already in the U.S.

Oberhelman said the new Illinois coalition supports upping the number of visas available as well as the idea of “stapling a green card” to advanced math and science degrees awarded from U.S. universities.

The coalition, he said, also wants to see the E-Verify system — used to check the immigration status of prospective employees — to be simplified so that smaller firms can use it.

Patrick Magoon, CEO Of the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, agrees with Oberhelman that hiring for some higher-end positions can be difficult under current limits on immigrant applicants. Magoon said Monday there’s a shortage, for instance, of pediatric specialists.

“Immigration reform is essential for recruiting the very best and the brightest at all levels to our institutions,” he said.

The deal reached over the weekend is backed by the AFL-CIO, but organized labor groups aren’t part of the new Illinois’ coalition.

Coalition members said they’re working with the union. The Illinois AFL-CIO did not return a call from The Associated Press.

Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois, said forming a state-level group to back immigration changes — and making sure labor unions participate — could be useful.

“Building a good working relationship at the state level could help position a state to use these work visas in a way that they’re intended ... and do it without doing any damage to the working standards in the state of Illinois,” he said, noting that unions can negotiate pay guarantees that prevent employers from hiring foreign workers purely to save on wages.

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/davidmercerap

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