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The president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Thursday that the "door to the American dream must always remain open" as he announced a broad coalition of business, labor, faith organizations, law enforcement and ethnic groups intent on overhauling the nation's immigration system.
Tom Donohue outlined his priorities for immigration legislation and expressed optimism that after years of ill-fated efforts, there is momentum in the White House and Congress to tackle the politically charged issue. The backing of the Chamber, which represents the interests of more than 3 million businesses, is certain to provide a critical boost to the push for reform against stiff opposition.
Donohue said any legislation should include increased border security, provisional visas for lesser-skilled workers and expansion of green cards for foreign nationals who receive advanced degrees from U.S. colleges and universities. He also favors a national employee verification system, which has been a contentious issue in the debate.
Donohue stressed that there should be a way to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
"We need to provide a path out of the shadows for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who live in the United States today — provided that they meet strict conditions," he said in a speech on the state of American business.
Donohue questioned the wisdom of training individuals "to have PhDs in organic chemistry" and then sending them back to their native country. He noted that there are a number of seasonal jobs in entertainment and agriculture.
The Chamber president is working with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, whom he praised as the "best guy in town" at building coalitions. Donohue also said he has met with Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who had been involved in previous efforts on immigration legislation.
"It's a work in progress as no legislation had yet been introduced, but we have been informally cooperating because all of us have a shared interest in America actually having a working immigration system that includes a roadmap to citizenship for the undocumented, together with other reforms to make our immigration laws meet the needs of the country," said Ana Avendano, assistant to the president for Immigration and Community Action at the AFL-CIO.
Most Democrats have favored legislation to give millions of illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship, but some Republicans have rejected that step. The issue has exposed divisions within the Republican ranks, and the split was particularly pronounced during the GOP presidential primaries.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney adopted a hard line on the issue, suggesting that illegal immigrants "self-deport." The results of the general election forced many in the GOP to reconsider their position, especially after Obama captured an estimated 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in winning re-election.
Looking ahead to the next election, Republicans recognize the political drawbacks of a tough line on immigration, especially with growing Hispanic populations in Florida, California and Texas. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the son of Cuban immigrants, worked on a bill last year that would have permitted young illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. with their parents to apply for non-immigrant visas.
It was a policy that Obama adopted.
Donohue acknowledged the difficulty in getting all parties to agree to legislation.
"You can demagogue this issue very easily," he said at a news conference following his speech.
Donohue's comments came as he detailed the chamber's priorities this year on federal spending, regulation and energy.