Chamber of Commerce on Illegals: 'Make Them Official So ... They Can Continue to Work Here'

By Penny Starr | January 12, 2012 | 3:25 PM EST

Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. ( Starr)

( – Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the estimated 12 million aliens working illegally in the United States should somehow be made “official” by the government so they can continue to work, but not automatically “make them citizens.”

Donohue made his remarks during a press conference following his speech on Thursday at a State of American Business 2012 event in Washington, D.C. asked Donohue, “You mentioned in your speech the importance of immigration on the economy and economic growth and I wondered if you would expand and tell me what the Chamber thinks should be done this year as far as immigration reform goes?”

Donohue answered by talking about unfilled jobs in America and seasonal workers and then said, “We have to deal with the reality that there are – I don’t know, you pick a number – 12 million working in this country who are here illegally. It’s quieted down some because of the pressure on the border.”

“And we’re not saying make them citizens,” he said. “We’re saying make them official so there’s a way they can continue to work here while they wait in line to get the necessary documentation. But they need to have identification so we know who they are and what they do.”

“I think this is a rational issue, but it is not very rational, particularly in a political season and it is a highly emotional issue,” said Donohue.  “But fundamentally we built this country on immigrants and if we don’t have them to add to our own natural growth, we’re going to have a really, really tough time competing around the world.”

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In his speech at the State of American Business 2012 event, he said “visa reform” was the first step in “the long-overdue priority of immigration reform.”

“America’s prosperity has always depended on the hard work, sacrifice, drive, and dreams of immigrants. Our future will depend on them even more.” He also stressed that securing the border was essential to all of these issues.

In this Sept. 28, 2010 photo, a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent drives along the international border fence near Nogales, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

In keeping with his visa reform theme, Donohue told that immigration law should allow “high-end, highly skilled people” who often are educated in the United States, to stay because they are “desperately needed in our economy.”

He said there are 3.5 million jobs in the United States that cannot be filled because of the skills required for the jobs.  He added that immigration reform should include a plan for seasonal workers.

“We need to deal with the question of how we can have workers come back and forth to this country when we need them, for seasonal, at Christmastime, you know, for additional manufacturing here,” Donohue said. “Because if you don’t have the workers here, you have to take the work where the workers are.”

Bruce Josten, executive vice president of governmental affairs at the Chamber, also responded to’s question.

“We continue to work and sit in the room with organized labor, with a number of senators, led by Sen. (Chuck) Schumer (D-N.Y.), to try and figure out what the resolution is to a comprehensive approach,” Josten said. “But more specifically to your question, as Tom pointed out, I don’t see that comprehensive approach getting a lot of traction this cycle.”

(AP Photo)

In his speech, Donohue called for increased trade and tourism, tax and regulatory reform, developing domestic energy sources, including approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, reigning in federal spending and entitlement reform.

Donohue said that this year, the 100th anniversary of the pro-business organization, the Chamber is “reaffirming our commitment to free enterprise.”

“We passionately believe that it’s time to stop apologizing for the one thing in our society that really works—American free enterprise,” Donohue said. “And it’s time for government and our fellow citizens to understand that the only way out of the problems we face is to drive economic growth from one end of the country to the other.

“So let’s go do it," he said.