June 17, 2015

When it comes to immigrants' issues, Springfield just doesn't speak the language

By: LAWRENCE BENITO

The volatile budget debates in Springfield have put the future of millions of Illinois immigrants in jeopardy. While $6 million in funding for immigrant services is included in the budget passed by the General Assembly, there is no indication of when, or if, Gov. Bruce Rauner will sign this legislation.

Even if he did, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which created and has administered immigrant programs and coordinated 60 immigrant community organizations to carry out these programs, may very well be replaced by in-house staff who will decide where and how money should be spent, according to testimony by James Dimas, the new director for the Illinois Department of Human Services.

This is bad policy. Thanks to state immigrant services funding, ICIRR and its network of partner organizations have efficiently served more than 500,000 immigrants, connecting them to the language, legal and health services they need to become productive members of Illinois' community. And just as important, these services directly have assisted more than 100,000 immigrants to become U.S. citizens and encouraged tens of thousands more to apply. Given the positive impact of citizenship on earnings, these new citizens have enhanced our communities' economic vitality as well as our state's financial coffers.

All of these gains are made possible through the work of the 60 ethnically and geographically diverse organizations, trained, coordinated and overseen by ICIRR, which speak the languages of our state's immigrant communities and stretch every dollar of state funding.

NEW CITIZENS BRING REVENUE

A new citizen experiences an annual salary increase of roughly $20,000. As a result, state income and sales tax revenues increase, and individuals gain access to better health care, educational and social services that further reduce burdens on the state. ICIRR's network utilizes matching grant programs—like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP—and more than 170,000 volunteer hours that elevate the initial value of the state's grant far beyond the $6 million cost.

It is more than a little ironic that Rauner, who has railed against the excesses of bureaucracy and has called for the outsourcing of the state's economic development role, would cripple a successful externally run program, one created for and by the community.

IDHS is simply unprepared to take immigrant services administration in-house because they lack knowledge of and relationships with immigrant communities, and have demonstrated little commitment to training or fostering organizations that serve these communities.

For 10 years the partnership between ICIRR, community-based organizations and state government has benefited state and immigrants alike. No scandals, no favoritism. This partnership has served as a model for the rest of the country. If it's not broken, it doesn't need to be fixed.