Saying the country has "a rare" opportunity to enact sweeping immigration reform, Sen. Dick Durbin said Monday he hopes U.S. House members take action this year on legislation recently passed by the Senate.
"But I'm a realist," Durbin said. "We are a divided Congress with a Republican House and Democratic Senate. We know it's going to take some time and a lot of cooperation."
In the meantime, the Democratic senator says he wants to show House Republicans, including Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton, that there is "a diverse level of support" for fixing the nation's "broken" immigration system.
Durbin visited Roskam's hometown to hold a round-table discussion with business, health, religious and community leaders, including Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran and Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital President David Fox.
Panel members at the session at Wheaton College urged the House to vote on the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, which Durbin helped author.
"There are some congressmen who have suggested that this is something that could be put off," said Doug Whitley, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. "We cannot wait. This is not something to delay on. That's the message we're trying to push harder and harder.
"We all know the system is broken," Whitley said. "We all know it needs to be fixed. We sent members of Congress to Washington to fix the problems. And this Congress must fix this problem."
The Senate bill was created in a bipartisan manner and includes enhanced border security and a legal path to citizenship for some of the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Durbin said he believes Senate Republicans "went too far" with their requirements for more resources to watch the border. For example, the legislation would double the number of border patrol agents to 40,000.
"We gave to the Republicans in the Senate everything they asked for in terms of resources to make the border strong," Durbin said. "It went far beyond what most Democrats would have ever offered. But it was an effort to have a bipartisan approach to this."
He said the "nonnegotiable" demand from Senate Democrats was the path to citizenship, which would require all unauthorized immigrants to register with the federal government. "At the end of the day, we've got to have these people integrated into America," he said.
Once registered, each immigrant would undergo a criminal-background check and face deportation if criminal convictions are found. Those who pass the background check can stay in the country and work after paying a fine.
Unauthorized immigrants who seek citizenship would have to go through a 13-year process. During the first decade, they would have to pay taxes but get "virtually" no benefits, Durbin said.
"Those who say this is amnesty have not taken an honest look at it," Durbin said. "This is a tough assignment for these 11 million people."
Benedictine University President William Carroll said reform is needed to help the sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants who want to attend college. Even the students who are U.S. citizens may not qualify for financial aid because of their parents' status.
"We are shooting ourselves in the foot," Carroll said. "They are us. They are our future."
Durbin said it would be best for the House to take a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. He warned that dealing with the issue in "a piecemeal" fashion won't work.
"What we did in the Senate, I hope, will be a template for the House," he said. "If they would call the bipartisan bill we passed in the Senate, my belief is it would pass the House of Representatives."