It was designed to be a feel-good event with the Loyola Ramblers’ beloved Sister Jean.
But it ended with Gov. Bruce Rauner yet again explaining his position on illegal immigration.
That’s because the 99-year-old Loyola University-Chicago basketball team chaplain was being honored in part for helping the university’s undocumented students receive financial aid. That caught the governor off guard on Friday, even though the state’s Senior Hall of Fame award was being bestowed by Rauner’s own Illinois Department on Aging, and the governor was helping present the honor.
It was another warm moment for Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, who stole fans’ hearts rooting on the sidelines and praying with members of the university men’s basketball team as they made their way to the Final Four earlier this year.
But it was also the end to a grueling campaign week for Rauner, which included tense appearances with Democrat J.B. Pritzker at both the Sun-Times Editorial Board and a final debate in Downstate Quincy.
At Loyola’s Water Tower Campus on Friday, Rauner stood alongside state Senate President John Cullerton as Sister Jean was inducted into the state’s Senior Hall of Fame for “outstanding achievements in education.” Cullerton, a Democrat, nominated Sister Jean for the honor.
Cullerton said Sister Jean “has opened doors to non-traditional students” and “worked to expand higher education for immigrants.”
Reporters at the ceremony were handed a fact sheet that detailed “programs Sister Jean is involved in that supported her nomination to this award.” One of the two listed was the Magis Scholarship, a program for undocumented students at Loyola who demonstrate financial need but don’t quality for federal financial aid.
Speaking to reporters after the induction, Rauner was asked whether he supports financial aid programs for undocumented students, in light of Sister Jean’s work with the program. The university was the first to accept undocumented medical students, and also has a “safe space” program for undocumented students.
“I’m not familiar with the [Magis] program,” Rauner said. “I’d have to learn more about it before I could comment on that program.”
The governor did not specify whether he would support financial aid for undocumented students, instead outlining his beliefs that there’s a need for “comprehensive immigration reform.”
“Nothing has changed on my views on immigration whatsoever. I support comprehensive immigration reform,” Rauner said. “That means streamlining and supporting legal immigration and trying to end illegal immigration. And as part of doing that, comprehensive immigration reform, I do believe there could be a pathway to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants. That’s been my view, always has been and continues to be.”
Earlier this week, Rauner came under fire for linking illegal immigration to crime.
He initially said illegal immigration takes away jobs from Americans, “hurts union workers, farm workers, factory workers, hurts wages and raises unemployment.”
When asked if he had unemployment figures to back that statement, the governor said yes: “One of the reasons we have such high unemployment in the city of Chicago, and so much crime, is the massive number of illegal immigrants here take jobs away from American citizens in Chicago.”
A day later, the Republican governor explained that he was linking illegal immigration to crime, but not calling the undocumented workers criminals.
Rauner told reporters he didn’t believe the undocumented are “acting violently or doing the violence themselves.” He said illegal immigrants take jobs away from legal citizens — contributing to unemployment, which then can lead to crime.
On Friday, Rauner did his best to keep the focus on Sister Jean, saying she embodies “everything that’s wonderful in life: faith love of community, love of God, giving back to those most vulnerable among us.”
Sister Jean addressed the crowd for about 10 minutes, drawing laughs and applause.
“I just get emotional when I get these awards when I hear all these wonderful things said about myself, it’s sort of a view of life as it was, and I think of myself, ‘Oh yes I did that.’ It’s kind of nice,” Schmidt said.
She joked about her age, saying she wants “everyone to work until you want to actually stop, and you really never should stop.”
And speaking of her experiences during March Madness, she said she was once told she had more reporters in the room than Tom Brady.
“So I guess that’s a real compliment,” she said. “And you know, I always say to the press — don’t let anybody put you down. You know you have special work to do. So just keep doing it. It’s very important.”
“That’s true,” Rauner interjected.
• Plenty of insults, apologies, attacks in final gov debate — but not many answers
* Debatus interruptus: Rauner and Pritzker bring sharp elbows to Sun-Times debate
• Read the full transcript of the Rauner-Pritzker debate at the Sun-Times
• Rauner redo: Crime linked to illegal immigration, not immigrants themselves
• Probably only a matter of time before Rauner starts chanting ‘Build that wall!’
• WATCH: Rauner, Pritzker face Sun-Times Editorial Board