Chicago’s De Paul University played host to a distinguished panel Tuesday, as former Republican Speaker of the House Denis Hastert joined the stage with Francis Cardinal George, John Rowe, Chairman Emeritus of the Exelon Corp. Dave Bender former aid to Governor Edgar and Billy Lawless, Chairman of the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform. The event organized by the Illinois Business Immigrant Coalition (IBIC) (a pro immigration reform group that focuses on educating the business community about the benefits of immigration reform) was significant for many reasons but none more so than the tacit nod of approval that Speaker Hastert gave to immigration reform.
The Speaker is considered by many rank and file Republicans to be the soul of the party and is responsible for the so-called Hastert Rule in Congress. This unwritten rule dictates that the Republican Speaker should not bring forth any bill that does not first have the support of the ‘majority of the majority’; in other words a majority of the ruling Republican Party must support any piece of legislation before it comes to a vote on the House floor.
In recent years, despite there being enough Republicans and a majority of Democrats to pass an immigration bill in the House, no such bill has gotten past Speaker Boehner’s desk as he invokes the Hastert Rule. Nothing happens in a vacuum I am told and we can only surmise that Hastert’s support of immigration reform in Chicago this week follows knowingly in the heels of Speaker Boehner’s newly released set of principles setting out his vision for immigration reform in 2014.
Former Speaker Hastert spoke about the need for securing the border but he also significantly expressed his support for a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented living here adding “we have to find a way to take them out of the shadows”. The former legislator teaches pro bono at his local community college in central Illinois and recounted how four out of seven of his Latino students openly admitted to him that they had at least one undocumented parent. By touching on this he highlighted the core of the immigration reform debate, which boils down to keeping families together.
Cardinal George also spoke about the impact of a broken immigration system on families and Billy Lawless, who came here 16 years ago from Galway spoke of his own immigrant success story.
“I started here with one Irish pub with ten workers and now I own three restaurants that employ over 250 people, with plans to open more. This is what we immigrants do: we build the economy, we create jobs”.
The Republican Party leadership, which includes Kevin McCarthy, Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and Cathy McMorris-Rogers (who just gave the Republican response to the State of the Union) has come out strongly in support of immigration reform this year. They understand the electoral significance of resisting reform and worry about its impact on the next presidential election, where Latinos are expected to be a significant voting block yet again. The problem for the Party elders is their raucous fifth column, the Tea Party members, who vehemently oppose any whiff of reform or ‘amnesty’ as they coin it.
The political maneuvering may be about to come to a head though as Speaker Boehner gets ready for a showdown with the rebellious immigration naysayers within his own party. His unprecedented and exasperated public rebuke of the Tea Party caucus after the government shutdown – an instance where he let them play their hand before finally reeling them back in – may be a sign that he will face down the far right and push immigration reform through in 2014.
He has also hired Rebecca Tallent, former top aide to Senator John McCain, who worked tirelessly on the Arizona senator’s immigration bill that he cosponsored with Ted Kennedy. Tallent turned down a spot on Boehner’s team once before, so one can only assume through the reading of the Beltway tealeaves that she feels that her talents really will be put to good use this time around.
In the one on ones that followed the panel discussion Chicago Celts Chairman Billy Lawless added “I’m hopeful that we will see real movement on immigration reform in 2014. With the support of the Bibles, Badges and Business (churches, law enforcement and chambers of commerce) here in Illinois and nationwide, we have forced the Republican Party to sit up and take note of the need for immigration reform.”
By Breandan Magee
Chicago Irish Immigrant Support