(CNSNews.com) - U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue, noting that 27 million Americans are unemployed, underemployed, or have given up on finding a job, said his organization supports a "way" "to legitimacy" for the estimated 12 to 14 million illegal aliens who are working in the United States.
“Unemployment had exceeded 9 percent for 20 consecutive months,” Donohue said in his annual State of American Business address at the Chamber’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. “Some 27 million Americans are either unemployed, underemployed or have give up looking for work.”
“In fact,” Donohue said, “we must create 1.2 million jobs a year just to absorb the new entrants into our workforce.”
Later in his remarks, Donohue said the Chamber would continue its efforts in support of comprehensive immigration reform, which some conservative critics consider to be a form of amnesty.
“Almost all of us are sons, daughters, or descendents of immigrants,” Donohue said. “The Chamber will continue to pursue comprehensive immigration reform.” He also cited the "urgent" need to improve visa processing, oppose attempts to gut temporary worker programs, and increase the number of foreign worker visas.
At a press conference following his speech, Donohue was asked by CNSNews.com if comprehensive immigration reform included a so-called pathway to citizenship.
“We think the most important parts of comprehensive immigration reform would be, first of all, a way for the, shall we say 12 million here, to legitimacy so that they can easily participate in society, pay their taxes, drive cars and that sort of thing,” Donohue said. “Second we need a guest worker program,” he said. “People could easily come back and forth for work and some of that would be seasonally, for crops and for recreation organizations and so on.
“And third, we definitely need a way to deal with high-end, talented folks that are needed in this economy. Donohue called it "amazing" that after years of training in America, professionals such as Ph.Ds in chemical engineering are now finding it hard to stay here.
Donohue said citizenship for illegal aliens should not be the top priority. “I don’t think the citizenship thing is necessary right now,” said Donohue, adding that protecting the U.S. border was also important. “I think we ought to pick the four or five things that everybody needs and let’s get it done.”
Donohue also said that the United States should keep the promise it made to Mexico 15 years ago to allow “safe, carefully inspected” Mexican trucks to transport goods into the U.S., as called for in the North American Free Trade Agreement. Labor unions strongly oppose the plan.
Donohue said the U.S. economy is “in better shape than we found ourselves last year,” and he noted “a new tone coming out of the White House.”
One indication of warming relations between the White House and the Chamber, which represents 3 million mostly small businesses, includes a scheduled address by President Barack Obama at the group’s headquarters on Feb. 7.
Among the areas Donohue said the Chamber would concentrate on in 2011:
-- restraint and reform of the regulatory process, including stopping the EPA from enacting regulations to limit greenhouse gases – a task that should be left to Congress, he said.
--Expanding American trade, rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and developing U.S. energy resources, and reducing the federal debt and deficit also made the top four on Donohue’s to-do list.
Donohue concluded his remarks with his trademark line-in-the-sand approach while expressing optimism that the Chamber can “work together” with the Obama administration and Congress in the coming year.
“Our approach in Washington will be to call them as we see them,” Donohue said. ‘We’ll continue to have our differences with the White House on some issues but we’ll work together on other issues."
“We’ll support the new House leadership on many occasions, and we’ll work with Democratic legislators as well, but no one should expect the Chamber to march in lock step with anyone,” Donohue said.
“We have a clear mission and agenda of our own,” he said. “It’s to continue to win important policy victories for our members and the American business community. It’s to support, protect, and advance the free enterprise system that made this country great. And it’s to help create good jobs and promising opportunities for all the people of our country so that they can achieve the American dream."