Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness...Unless You're Illegal?

By Shawn Healy
Last evening, the Freedom Museum, in partnership with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, conducted a public program considering the rights of illegal immigrants to the United States. Ric Estrada, the Executive Director of Erie Neighborhood House, moderated the debate between Susan Gzesh, Director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago, and Jim Oberweis, Illinois entrepreneur and former candidate for U.S. Senate and Illinois Governor.

Estrada began the evening by posing questions to the two participants, and they alternately presented their dichotomous positions in a civilized, respectful manner, even seeking agreement when the opportunity presented itself. Gzesh began by pointing out the fact that the U.S. Bill of Rights is largely a list of negative rights that cannot be taken away by our government as opposed to the more positive granting of rights achieved by the Human Declaration of Human Rights. Although the Supreme Court has established an affirmative right for all residents of the United States, both legal and illegal, to attend public schools, and non-discrimination is strongly protected by statute and precedent, basic human services like health care are not guaranteed.

Oberweis emphasized the fact that immigration is a privilege, not a right, and argued that those who break U.S. laws should abide by the consequences. Moreover, access to human services described by Gzesh is a costly manifestation of immigration.

Localities such as Hazelton, PA, and Carpentersville, IL, have taken it upon themselves to craft ordinances meant to address the "abdication" of responsibility by the federal government in regulating immigration. Oberweis emphasized the right of cities and states to act in this vacuum. They may pass ordinances and laws dealing with immigration that go as far as and not further than federal law unless otherwise prohibited. He predicted that we should expect more cities to follow the footsteps of Hazelton and Carpentersville.

Gzesh countered by arguing that in many cities and towns across the U.S. Latinos are a majority of local populations, but do not constitute a majority of the electorate. The anti-immigrant laws that emerge from these locales are attributed to economic insecurities among the population and a political agenda targeting illegal immigrants. She argues that the jury is still out on the economic impact of illegal immigration, and advises against states adopting their own immigration laws.

Gzesh suggests that our societal obligation to illegal immigrants is not legal but instead moral. Acknowledging that our current laws are ineffective, she asked, "How do we want to position ourselves as a nation?"

Oberweis pointed to the fact that 5 billion people worldwide live in worse economic conditions that the average Mexican, suggesting that the latter have no more of a right to live here than the former. The implications of such mass emigration to the U.S. would be staggering, he suggests, and the current entry of 1 million immigrants each year is at a rate 4 times higher than the historic average.

Estrada turned to the assembled audience of more than 80 for questions directed toward the participants, although several injected their own viewpoints and experiences along the way. One teacher, for example, lamented about students of immigrant parents who needed eye glasses to succeed in school, but without health care or the economic self-sufficiency to meet these needs.

Oberweis suggested that the immigration issue has two major components, a national security dimension, and the practical matter of what to do with 12-20 million illegal immigrants currently residing on U.S. soil. Gzesh agreed that registration of existing illegal immigrants is critical to national security, but condemned the recent raids on employers hiring illegals. Oberweis, on the other hand, wants existing laws on employers enforced.

Neither participant is a fan of the current legislation under consideration in the Senate. Oberweis would like the border fortified before addressing a guest worker program and considering amnesty for those illegal immigrants already here. He argued, "Let's fix the leak, then properly bail water."

Gzesh opposes the change to the point system applied to legal immigrants. The Senate legislation would place greater weight on job skills than family reunification, a "dramatic" change to a system in place for more than four decades.

An audience member suggested that the current immigration debate carried a racial overtone. He pointed to Oberweis and argued that his position might be different if today's immigrants shared his skin color. Oberweis flatly rejected this assertion, claiming that his tough stance against illegal immigration has nothing to do with race. Gzesh, on the other hand, while not directly confronting Oberweis on this matter, highlighted the racial connotations of historic immigration debates and pointed to parallels with the current standoff.

In the end, the audience was treated to a vigorous exchange between two knowledgeable participants and an informed moderator. Many were provided with a platform to air their concerns and questions, and both sides of this thorny issue fracturing traditional ideological alliances were subjected to the scrutiny of the entire assembled group.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at