Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker clashed over immigration and Chicago violence Tuesday, with the Republican chief executive alleging that immigrants living illegally in the state are a factor in the city’s crime problem while the Democrat said they contribute to Illinois’ economy.

The comments came during an often chippy forum between the two major candidates for governor before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. It was the second-to-last joint appearance between Rauner and Pritzker leading up to the Nov. 6 election.

Both men frequently interrupted one another over controversies dogging each candidate. Rauner lobbed the term “tax cheat” to reference a Cook County inspector general’s report that contended Pritzker was involved in a “scheme to defraud” taxpayers over a property tax reduction. Pritzker tossed out the phrase “criminal investigation” to refer to Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s probe of the Rauner administration’s handling of deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at a state veterans home in Quincy.

Rauner, who has been trailing Pritzker by double digits in independently conducted polls, indicated the need to continue to heal a core GOP constituency, social conservatives, with his latest remarks on immigration. Social conservatives have been upset with Rauner’s signing of laws that expanded immigration, abortion and transgender rights.

Rauner sought to make clear that he signed legislation preventing law enforcement from stopping someone solely on his or her immigration status only because it was backed by law enforcement.

“Illegal immigration takes jobs away from Americans. It holds down wages, hurts union workers, farmworkers, factory workers, hurts wages and raises unemployment,” Rauner said.

“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 and Chicago citizens,” he contended, adding that Pritzker wants to make Illinois a “sanctuary state.”

But Pritzker said the state needed someone to stand up against President Donald Trump’s efforts to crack down on immigrants entering and living in the country illegally. “They are good for the economy of the state of Illinois,” he said.

“The fact is that we’re not going to send 11 or 12 million people outside the United States. That shouldn’t be done. We have a state that should be a welcoming state,” said Pritzker, a billionaire heir to the Hyatt hotels fortune.

Asked if immigrants in Illinois illegally were a burden, Pritzker said: “No. I am explaining that what we need to do is protect the immigrants that are here in our state. We have immigrants here who are not protected, under attack by President Trump. He (Rauner) stands with President Trump on this. I do not.”

A number of academic, governmental and immigrant advocacy group studies have debunked a link between crime and immigration.

A study published in the journal Criminology in March found that states with larger shares of immigrants living in the country without legal permission showed lower crime rates than states with smaller shares from 1990 through 2014.

“Increases in the undocumented immigrant population within states are associated with significant decreases in the prevalence of violence,” the study’s authors, Michael T. Light and Ty Miller, found.

Also in March, the Marshall Project reported that a four-university study found that while the number of immigrants — including those living here illegally — overall in Chicago rose by 73 percent from 1980 to 2016, the city’s violent crime rate fell by 14 percent. The report found that assaults were up 8 percent, but robberies fell by 32 percent and homicides by 18 percent during the time period studied.

At another point in the forum, Rauner contended that high property taxes also contributed to Chicago violence.

“In Chicago, people are suffering terribly from brutally high property taxes and brutally high unemployment, which drives violence. That’s it,” he said. “In Chicago, it’s brutal violence caused by unemployment primarily, and by brutally high property taxes.

As for efforts to curb gun violence in Chicago, the Republican governor said he would veto legislation passed with the support of some GOP lawmakers that would require state licensing of gun retailers, saying, “All it will do is cause unemployment and businesses to close and not increase public safety.”

“The real answer to your question is jobs. The best way to stop a gun is with a job,” he said. “We have brutally high unemployment on the South Side and West Side of Chicago. Brutally high unemployment in many other communities in this state. Why? Because Illinois is hostile to business. We’re not growing fast enough. Why? Taxes, corruption and regulation. We’re fixing that in our administration.”

But Pritzker said he would sign the gun dealer licensing bill and contended a spike in firearm violence was related to the state’s historic budget impasse, the result of an ideological battle that pitted Rauner’s pro-business, union-weakening agenda against a Democrat-led legislature that counts organized labor as a leading ally.

“Gun violence across the state of Illinois has gone up in the very same period that Gov. Rauner refused to compromise on a budget,” Pritzker said. “So many of the violence interruption services, human services that people have as their last vestige of connection with civilization, have gone away. Mental health services and so forth,” Pritzker said.

Both men plowed already heavily furrowed ground over their respective controversies.

Rauner contended that Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the daughter of his chief political nemesis, House Speaker Michael Madigan, opened an investigation of his administration’s handling of Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy to quickly turn attention away from the Cook County inspector general’s report on Pritzker’s property tax reassessment.

“Within 24 hours (of the inspector general report surfacing), Lisa Madigan, with no evidence whatsoever of criminal behavior, says she’s launching a criminal investigation” of Quincy, Rauner said.

“Why? So that you guys in the press are talking about that to distract from the real criminal behavior, the real fraud that Mr. Pritzker has committed,” the governor said.

But Pritzker responded that the administration waited six days to notify the public after the beginning of the initial 2015 Legionnaires’ outbreak at the home that ended up killing 12 residents and sickening dozens. Annual outbreaks have occurred since, leading to a total of 14 deaths and 70 people sickened.

“Six days went by. Six days before anybody told anybody else about the death and sicknesses,” Pritzker said.

“There was a cover-up. There were emails that were uncovered. In fact, in (Freedom of Information Act) requests, they were blacked out because he didn’t want to let people know what really was going on — which was an effort to cover their butts, to make sure that they weren’t held accountable,” he said.

Rauner has said his administration did all it could to respond to the outbreaks. He also has said immediate notification was not necessary, to avoid “panic” and because Legionnaires’ is not a contagious disease.

State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s special investigations unit is looking into Inspector General Patrick Blanchard’s report over Pritzker’s Gold Coast mansion, which included findings on the removal of toilets. Pritzker has said he did nothing wrong but is repaying $330,000 to the county treasurer to reflect the value of the property tax breaks.

Pritzker has said there are inaccuracies in the inspector general’s report. After the debate, he said “numerous people” said his home’s designation was “proper, and that was somewhat ignored in the report.” He also said “other items of disrepair” weren’t emphasized in the report.

Both candidates acknowledged the need to improve reporting of sexual harassment claims in the era of the #MeToo movement — though Rauner used the issue to attack the House speaker.

“Unfortunately what’s come to light over the last three years is there has been extensive sexual harassment and mistreatment of women and others in the legislature, in the Democratic Party and Speaker Madigan has had his most senior, most trusted officers and lieutenants in the Democratic Party and in the General Assembly be accused of sexual harassment, and many have stepped down as a result,” Rauner said, calling himself a “strong advocate and champion for women” on the issue compared with Pritzker.

Pritzker said he criticized Madigan for failing to move quickly to deal with sexual harassment issues but said the problem wasn’t limited to one political party.

“I have called out Speaker Madigan and I have called out both Democrats and Republicans because this doesn’t just happen on one side of the aisle. There’s sexual harassment in the Republican Party and people should be held responsible there too,” the Democrat said.

Asked if Madigan had fallen short on addressing the issue expeditiously, Pritzker said: “Yes, and I said so and it took too long to have those allegations investigated. I did call it out. The governor knows that. He’s just playing politics with this.”

The final face-to-face meeting of the candidates is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday in Quincy. The only downstate broadcast forum is being held by WGEM-TV and the Illinois Broadcasters Association.

rap30@aol.com

mriopell@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @rap30

Twitter @MikeRiopell

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