NIU President Doug Baker, leaders from the greater-Chicago business community and representatives from faith-based organizations gathered Tuesday morning at NIU Naperville to speak out in support of common sense immigration reform.
The event was organized by the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition and co-sponsored by NIU, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“We have more than a million undocumented students in America,” said Baker, who focused on the importance of immigration reform as it relates to education. “Each year, 65,000 of them graduate from high school, yet only 5 to 10 percent of undocumented students go on to college. What a waste of resources. What a cycle of poverty we create.”
The difficulty of breaking that cycle was illustrated by an NIU student, Christian (last name withheld to avoid attracting undue notice from immigration officials) who worries that, despite working three jobs and an internship this past summer, she might not be able to pay for the rest of her education.
Even though she carries a 3.5 grade point average, is enrolled in the University Honors Program and holds membership in the Adele de la Torre Honor Society, Christian’s prospects for scholarships are uncertain and her status as an undocumented student make her ineligible for financial aid.
Such situations must change, Baker said.
“We need to reduce the barriers so students like Christian don’t have to do the sort of heroic work she has done to overcome these problems. I am so proud of her, but it should not have been so hard. We need to figure out a way to get financial aid for students like her.”
Manny Sanchez, NIU alumnus and former chair of the NIU Board of Trustees, represented the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce on the panel. He noted that the current momentum for reform has created an historic opportunity.
“We have a chance, maybe the first chance since 1986, to do something about a serious problem that affects 12 million to 13 million people in our country,” said Sanchez, who is the managing partner of the second-largest minority-owned law firm in the country.
He noted that even some of the most conservative think tanks in the country, such as the American Enterprise Institute, support immigration reform. “We have a chance to do this,” he said. “And it is the right thing to do.”
Irish immigrant and Chicago restaurant owner William Lawless, who also sat on the panel, said he believes reform can happen if Republican legislators resist pressure from far-right wing political groups who vow to vote them out of office if they support reform.
“We need good men and women to stand up and be counted and not be intimidated by threats,” Lawless said. “It’s time. It’s our time. We cannot let this moment pass.”
Getting the law passed is crucial to ensuring America will remain a force in the increasingly competitive global economy, said Sam Scott III, the former CEO of Corn Products International who co-chairs the Illinois Business Coalition.
“Twenty-five years ago, there was no competition around the world when it came to attracting the best and the brightest – the smartest folks didn’t want to be anywhere but the United States,” Scott said. “Globalization has changed that. Today they can go any number of places and get in much more easily.”