Immigration reform in 2013? It has a champion in Corporate America.

US Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue says he's optimistic that immigration reform can be passed this year and is working with a broad array of partners to make that happen.

Jim Young/Reuters/File
In this May 2011 file photo, a boy listens to President Obama speak on immigration reform at Chamizal National Memorial Park in El Paso, Texas. President Obama has vowed to make immigration reform a top legislative priority in 2013.

Corporate America’s top lobbyist Thursday laid out a slew of the business community’s top goals for the year – lower regulation, increased trade, booming energy production, and a fix to the nation’s fiscal situation.

But US Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue was particularly bullish, and at times passionate, on another long-sought goal, one not often associated with the conservative-leaning group: immigration reform.

“I have an optimistic feeling about this,” Mr. Donohue told reporters after his annual State of American Business speech. “Before, everybody talked about it, everybody understood the issues, but there wasn’t an energy behind it and I think there is a bipartisan group of people – we haven’t got everybody, that’s for sure – but I feel positive about it and look forward to [immigration reform] this year.”

The Chamber has been a firm advocate for immigration reform, an issue more closely identified with liberal advocates, for many years, including its support for 2006 legislation that stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Donohue said his conversations with lawmakers from both parties on Capitol Hill make him optimistic for a solution in 2013. He also noted that the Chamber is working with groups ranging from faith organizations to law enforcement to labor unions including the nation’s largest – and staunchly progressive – labor group, the AFL-CIO, to forge a broad political coalition to support an immigration reform effort.

“We will find a balance in these issues,” Donohue said, before calling AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka, a man with whom Donohue is working personally, “about the best guy in town at building coalitions.”

On Capitol Hill, Donohue’s efforts will support legislative work by bipartisan groups in both the House and Senate currently discussing immigration reform proposals. President Obama, too, has vowed to make immigration reform a top legislative priority in 2013.

Bringing a wide range of interest groups on board an immigration reform push is key, Donohue acknowledged, because immigration reform’s many politically explosive questions – What to do with undocumented immigrants? How to secure America’s borders? What about American unemployment? – could be disastrous for lawmakers.

“These are very passionate issues,” Donohue said. “People worry about what the folks back home think, and you can demagogue this issue very easily.”

Donohue’s speech offered only the broad outlines of an immigration reform plan. The Chamber favors strict border security measures and workplace systems to verify immigration status, “thoughtfully designed” guest worker programs for both low- and high-skilled workers, more green cards for international students at American universities, and “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.”

Donohue put special emphasis on the need to reform the immigration system despite persistent unemployment among existing Americans.

“Even with high unemployment, we have millions of job openings that go unfilled. Either the workers come here to fill those jobs,” Donohue said, “or the companies take all of their jobs somewhere else.”

He noted that the Chamber and the business community at large are fighting for better job training and education reforms, but that even so, “we still need immigrants. We are locked in a competition for the world’s best talent. This is the competition that will separate the economic leaders from the laggards in the 21st century.”

And he warned that America would do well to remember its heritage when thinking through how to change its immigration system.

“As we have this important debate,” Donohue said, “let’s remember who we are and where our families would be today if earlier generations of Americans had decided to slam the door shut.”

“The door to the American dream,” he continued, “must always remain open.”

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