Illinois touted as a 'pioneer state' for immigration rights
The federal government is responsible for enacting immigration reforms, but states can make the lives of immigrants better through state laws.
That’s exactly what Illinois has done under Gov. J.B. Pritzker, according to immigration reform advocates at a virtual League of Women Voters of McLean County panel discussion Wednesday night.
Lauren Aronson, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, moved here from Louisiana, a state she claims has multiple barriers for immigrants trying to make a new life.
“This state (Illinois) is so radical. It’s amazing,” she said.
For example, Aronson said in Louisiana, not only are immigration policies limiting protections, but the interpretation of already-existing laws are stacked against migrants. She explained state court judges in Louisiana didn’t understand that by making findings of abuse, abandonment or neglect for immigrant kids, they were not themselves granting immigration status, but were merely allowing the children to prove their eligibility to the federal government.
Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), said Illinois has become one of the most welcoming states for non-citizens and refugees, based on 10 years of hard work by his organization and others like it.
The immigrant rights groups helped craft and lobbied for the Illinois Way Forward bill signed into law by Pritzker last August. The legislation expands opportunities and protections for immigrants in Illinois.
Tsao pointed out the law also prohibits both state and local governments from signing or renewing contracts with the federal government to detain immigrants. Two Illinois counties challenged that provision in federal court but lost, clearing the way for the evacuation of migrant detainees by the end of this week.
A broken system
But Tsao said while treatment of immigrants in Illinois has improved, the battle for better protections is far from over. In fact, he is scheduled to testify this week for a bill (SB 3144) that would set up a task force to make recommendations about how the state can provide legal representation for Illinois residents in immigration proceedings.
“If there were better ways that were more realistic and that address not only economic needs but real human needs, I would wager we would have much less of a problem with smugglers and traffickers and with the situation at the border,” Tsao said.
Immigration Project Social Services Director Sarah Mellor explained that a U.S. citizen will wait as long as 23 years to be reunited with an adult son or daughter in Mexico because of the backlog of pending visa applications.
Aronson agreed the situation is ridiculous. Those who are seeking asylum face so many challenges.
“If you apply for asylum, you might wait many years. I have one client who is almost five years waiting for his asylum interview, and that is not the longest,” she said.
Claudia Calvo, an immigrant from El Salvador with two kids who were born in the U.S., said state government funding for Welcome Centers, such as the one operated in Bloomington by the Immigration Project, are making life so much better for refugees and migrants. Calvo is an English as a Second Language student at Heartland Community College and also works as a caseworker at the center, providing support for newer arrivals.
Calvo has her green card and next year she can apply for citizenship. Meanwhile, she enjoys helping others who are in the similar position she found herself in four years ago. She can connect them to local resources for housing, transportation, financial support, and jobs.
“If we’re not able to do it, we (Welcome Center staff) find support," she said. "We don’t say no. We say yes, we can find some help.”
She said the Welcome Center serves as a connection to a sense of community that has emboldened her to rethink her own potential. Calvo now leads a Spanish-speaking parent group.
“At the beginning, I would not see myself as a parent leader or being in this position right now, but these are the opportunities that being in community can give you,” she said.
Immigrant family support
Overall funding for immigrant services is $50 million in the current fiscal year state budget, including $30 million for direct cash assistance through the Immigrant Family Support Program. The pandemic-related emergency assistance funding helps Illinois immigrants facing unemployment, loss of income and medical costs, along with food and housing insecurity as a result of COVID-19.
Mellor said the Immigration Project, which supports 86 Illinois counties, has processed more than 1,300 applications for COVID financial help under the program. Mellor said it helped many in the service and hospitality industry who lost their jobs, or were hospitalized because of the virus. She said while many are back at work, they went deeply into debt.