The former leader of the U.S. Small Business Administration and the head of a Hispanic organization on Thursday said "comprehensive" reform is needed to address the illegal immigration situation.

"This is a critical issue, and it's a tough issue for a lot of people," Hector V. Barreto said during a visit to Salt Lake City.

The former administrator of the SBA and chairman of the Latino Coalition, representing Latino interests with senior executives of companies and government agencies, Barreto made the remarks during a question-and-answer period following a speech about small businesses in the United States.

"We believe that there should be some type of comprehensive immigration reform," he said.

Many people are at extremes on the issue, but he said extreme measures won't work.

"We need to fortify our border. ... It's a security imperative, especially after 9/11," Barreto said. "But we also need to be realistic about what's going on in this country. There are millions of people here that are working in the shadows that are making contributions to this economy, and we just have to find a way to treat them with respect and with dignity. And, again, it is a very tough issue."

That is an issue that the new president and Congress will have to address after the 2008 election, he said.

"This is not an issue that's going to go away, and I say to you that we have people who are working in this country and we should at least know who they are, and we have to find a way to get a common-sense immigration policy," he said.

He noted that 45 million Hispanics in the United States are citizens and that Hispanics represent 14 percent of the population and $800 billion in purchasing power.

America had similar issues when Germans, Italians and Jews came to the country, he said. "This is the latest version of immigration," he said.

"But it's something we definitely are going to have to deal with. It's not going to be an easy solution. And at the end of the day, it's probably going to be some kind of a compromise that accomplishes (all) those things: Knowing who's here, a common-sense immigration policy, fortification of the border, and then remembering that we should all treat each other with some dignity and some respect," he said.

In addition to chairing the Latino Coalition, Barreto serves on the California Commission for Economic Development and previously was chairman of the Latin Business Association in Los Angeles and vice chairman of the board of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He's the author of a book about small-business success and serves on the boards of directors of several companies.

His father was an immigrant, coming to the United States from Mexico in the 1950s. He picked potatoes, pounded railroad spikes, cleaned a meat-packing plant and was a school janitor, but saved his money in order to eventually open several restaurants and establish a construction company.

"I remember when I was in L.A., I used to hear people say, 'What do these people want? Do they want to come over here and assimilate and be like us, or do they want to stay separate and be in their own communities and have their own things?' And what we explained to them was, it's not an either/or proposition. It's really an 'and."'

They would come to the United States, have their children educated here and serve in the military, but they also wanted to maintain their cultural identity, he said. "But that doesn't mean," Barreto said, "that they don't love this country and they're not patriotic."

E-mail: [email protected]