Sun-Times: Exelon's John Rowe makes business case for immigration reform

February 08, 2013
FRANCINE KNOWLES Business Reporter February 6, 2013 6:46PM

With the debate on immigration reform set to heat up, Exelon Corp. Chairman Emeritus John Rowe says he sees an economic and moral case for reform, and he sees it through the eyes of children.

They are children at Chicago schools he has long been involved in, schools where a significant number of the children are undocumented, Rowe told attendees at an immigrant integration symposium in Chicago on Wednesday.

Rowe and his wife are principal funders and volunteers at Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy and Rowe Elementary School, Chicago charter schools that teach low-income children in tough neighborhoods.

“How would you feel when a 16-year-old boy or girl looks you in the eye and says ‘Mr. Rowe, can I really go to college and get a good job, and you have to answer, ‘I can help you go to college but I can’t hire you.’”

He cited the example of one of the school’s first graduates, who ranked in the top 10 in her class and is now studying engineering.

“She would like to be a nuclear engineer,” but she might not be able to share her talents in the U.S., he said. “This obviously makes no moral sense and even less economic sense.”

Rowe delivered the keynote at the event put on by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights — a statewide coalition of 130 organizations.

In a Sun-Times interview, Rowe said the business case for immigration reform is that there’s a need for “those high-end people for all sorts of very demanding jobs. But at the same time, I think in many ways the so-called less-skilled people are equally important. We need people who are willing to work and pay taxes. The business case is more diligent people creates more growth, and more growth creates opportunity for people who are here as well as more recent immigrants.”

There are false assumptions concerning immigration, he said, including the belief that “the pie is a fixed size and that we’re all fighting over slices of an existing pie. I think the deeper reality is that dedicated people make the pie grow. That includes all of our last generation of immigrants … and it includes the current generation of immigrants.”

Rowe gave 2-to-1 odds that immigration reform legislation will be passed this year.

“I think the president has committed himself more firmly than ever,” he said. “The Democratic leadership is committed. Republicans like Lindsay Graham and John McCain who’ve been saying this needs to be done for years now have more support in their caucuses, so I just think its going to happen … The fact that the unions are now working with the president on a bill is a very positive thing.”

He told the gathering he’s more conservative than many in the room, but asked, “Since when is it conservative to tell people they cannot work and pay taxes.”

Rowe co-chairs the Chicago Council on Global Affairs task force on immigration and U.S. economic competitiveness, which will release a report at the end of the month on immigration policy and the Illinois economy.

He noted immigrants in Illinois make up 13.7 percent of the population but 18 percent of its work force. They represent 28 percent of the state’s Ph.D. earners and 27 percent of the low-skill work force. They include people just seeking to do the best they can for themselves and their families, he said, noting they don’t fit any stereotypes and play important roles in the state’s competitiveness in industries, including tourism, manufacturing, health care, engineering and technology.