The White House held an immigration round table discussion in Chicago on Wednesday March 27. 

The meeting was hosted by Billy Lawless, Chairman of the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform and was headed by the Department of Labor’s Acting Secretary and Deputy Secretary Seth D. Harris. 

The event was a milestone moment in the move towards comprehensive immigration reform and was attended by over 40 ethnic community leaders representing Chicago’s diverse immigrant population, including the Irish, Latino, Polish, Chinese, Lithuanian and Muslim communities to name but a few.

Secretary Harris started off the meeting with the now familiar mantra that ‘elections have consequences’ in reference to the bipartisan efforts now underway to secure comprehensive immigration reform in the wake of the November presidential elections, which saw the President win big among minorities and in particular among Latino voters.

The election results have catapulted immigration reform to the top of the political agenda as both parties try to manage the fallout and the impact of a growing Latino demographic who could decide future elections.  He also lauded the efforts of pro-immigrant groups seeking fair reform of our nation’s broken immigration system and acknowledged the immigrant roots of every American, excluding Native American tribes.

He also recognized the intrinsic value that immigrants bring to our country and reiterated the belief that comprehensive immigration reform is a vital component to the President’s plan for economic recovery.  He cited figures that indicate that immigration reform will grow our GDP from 0.8 percent to 1.3 percent, which would effectively double current GDP output.  The current purchasing power of immigrants, he added, was $1 trillion and he brought home the point that although immigrants account for only 13 percent of the population they are responsible for 28 percent of new businesses.  In short immigrants are good for the economy he argued, as shown in the laundry list of successful start-ups headed by immigrants in the last 15 years, such as Google, Intel and Yahoo.

The meeting was also an opportunity for the Secretary to listen to the concerns of community leaders on the coal face, which he could then relay to the Oval Office.  The Irish voice in the immigration debate also rang out when a young undocumented man from Ireland addressed the room and told his story.  Familiar to many in the Irish community his story rang true of the typical grit and determination to make a life for himself and his family in America.  Gerry came here 17 years ago on a tourist visa and overstayed but worked long and hard, paid taxes and contributed to the economy by starting a small construction company that today, even in bad times, employs 5 people.  He married a naturalized US citizen and has a young son but current immigration laws prohibit him from adjusting his own status. 

That doesn’t stop him giving back to the country he loves though as he told the group that he volunteers as a coach on three local soccer teams, one in Chicago’s underprivileged south aside.  Gerry is typical of today’s immigrants: entrepreneurial, determined and willing to contribute to society.  His story will no doubt be told in the White House but his story in one form or another repeats itself 12 million times across our nation every day. 

The President and the legislators debating immigration reform can make Gerry’s American dream come true if they pass into law a comprehensive immigration reform bill that offers a path to earned citizenship for the 12 million undocumented workers, like Gerry who are often living in multi status families with US citizen family members.  Gerry and his family like millions of others are waiting and hoping.

*Breandán Magee is the Executive Director of the Chicago Irish Immigrant Support (CIIS)