By Dina Smeltz and Juliana Kerr
This morning, President Obama delivered a speech to the nation encouraging Congress to pass immigration reform before the end of the year. After quoting economic statistics to describe the positive impact reform will have on the nation, he noted “it is not just the right thing to do, but it is also the smart thing to do.” Citing broad support for reform from different sectors of society, including business leaders, he asked the nation to take a closer look at the polls: a clear majority of Americans think we should pass reforms.
The business community is traditionally considered to be politically conservative. Yet business leaders are generally viewed by activists to be a strong ally for immigration reform unlike conservatives in the House who oppose debating the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill. Businesses need skilled workers to remain competitive and they want to be able to legally employ hard-working individuals with necessary talents no matter where they come from.
To better understand the views of business leaders in the Midwest region – a particularly challenging region for immigration advocacy – toward immigrants and immigration policies, their hiring practices, and the correlation with their political affiliations, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs commissioned a September 2013 survey among 500 Midwestern business leaders from small (0-100 employees), medium (101-999 employees) and large businesses (1,000 or more employees).
The results show that regardless of political affiliation, majorities of Midwest businesses support the Senate bill, including 75 percent of Republican Midwest business leaders (63% Democrat; 55% Independent) (Figure 1). The question presented four key components in the Senate bill: increasing border security at a cost of $46 billion; identifying illegal immigrants; penalizing employers who hire them; and requiring illegal immigrants who qualify to stay to pay taxes and learn English before they can apply for citizenship after ten years.
A slim majority of Midwestern businesses support comprehensive immigration reform over passing reforms incrementally (Figure 2). Fifty-three percent prefer to enact stricter border control and a path to legal status simultaneously now (including 55% of Republican Midwest business leaders, 53% Democrat and 50% Independent). The remainder is evenly divided between those who prefer that Congress enact border controls now and leave path to legal status for later (23%, higher among Republicans), and those who prefer that Congress enact a path to legal status now and enact border control later (22%, higher among Democrats).
While these questions signal fairly broad business support for comprehensive reform, survey questions that hone in specifically on providing a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants elicit somewhat greater reluctance from Republican business leaders. A sizable third of Republican business leaders in the Midwest say that unauthorized immigrant workers should be required to leave their jobs and leave the U.S. (33%, compared to 22% of Independent and 11% of Democrat Midwest business leaders) (Figure 3). By the way, an April 2013 Chicago Council survey also found that one in three Midwestern residents (31%) also believe that unauthorized immigrants should be required to leave their jobs and the US.
Even though Republican Midwest business leaders support deportation more often than Democrats and Independents, the prevailing inclination among Republican Midwest business leaders is to support some type of legalization of unauthorized immigrants to stay in their jobs in the US: 51 percent of them support a pathway to citizenship either immediately or after paying a penalty and waiting, and an additional 18 percent favor giving them work permits without citizenship. Midwest business leaders who identify as Democrat or Independent are much more inclined to support a path to citizenship.
Midwest business leaders are drivers of economic growth and have a lot at stake in the immigration debate. Half of those surveyed say their company either currently (38%) employs legal immigrants or has in the past (11%). Solid majorities say it is at least somewhat important for the country and the economy to allow more high-skill (74%) and low-skill (64%) foreign workers into this country legally. Yet it’s a big question mark whether this contentious issue will be resolved in the coming months.
A full and detailed report of The Chicago Council’s 2013 Midwest Business Leader Survey will be released in November 2013. Visit MidwestImmigration.org for updates.