Immigrant rights get a boost in Illinois

CHICAGO – The immigrant rights movement got a double boost here this week after state lawmakers approved a bipartisan measure that would aid undocumented youth in attending college. Also, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn officially withdrew from the controversial “Secure Communities” federal immigration program.

On Wednesday, May 4, the Illinois Senate passed the Illinois DREAM Act with a strong bipartisan 45-11 vote. The bill, SB 2185, would establish a state “Dream” commission to administer privately funded scholarships to as many as 95,000 students of immigrant parents.

The measure aims to amend current law so that Illinois residents, and not just citizens may access the state’s college savings program. It would also require high school counselors to get trained on dealing with the challenges and hurdles that undocumented youth face in accessing higher education opportunities.

Further, the law would allow undocumented youth aged 18 to 29 with taxpayer identification cards to invest in the state’s Bright Start and College Illinois programs. Supporters note no taxpayer dollars would be used.

“We are simply saying they should be treated as other children are, who want to go to college,” said Senate President John Cullerton, a Democrat and the bill’s main sponsor, to the Chicago Sun-Times.

State Sen. Tom Johnson, one of the Republicans who voted for the measure, said the bill represents an “American value issue” and that immigrant youth “are our future and our fellow residents of Illinois.”

Lawrence Benito, an associate director with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which helped push the Illinois DREAM bill said, “Here in the land of Lincoln, open minds and big hearts prevail, and this was a step in the right direction.”

Support for the Illinois Dream Act came from 34 Democrats and 11 Republicans. Those opposed included every other Republican in the Illinois Senate.

The bill gets its name from a federal piece of legislation also known as the DREAM Act, which almost passed in Congress last winter. That measure would have allowed millions of undocumented students higher education opportunities, including a path toward citizenship if they attend college or join the military.

Although the Illinois version cannot include a path to citizenship for undocumented youth, activists say it’s a move other state’s could follow in countering some of the anti-immigrant measures being proposed.

Cindy Agustin is a student at the University of Chicago and an activist with the Illinois Immigrant Youth Justice League. “The passage of the (Illinois) DREAM Act shows that our efforts are not in vain,” she said. “It gives us hope and strength to continue working for our right to an education.”

The bill now moves to the House, where it will see a vote in the next several weeks. If it passes there, then it goes to Gov. Quinn, who has said he supports the measure.

Previously, Gov. Quinn has made Illinois the first state in the nation to opt-out of the controversial federal immigration program known as Secure Communities.

Quinn sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security declaring the state’s formal withdrawal from the federal deportation program, which resulted in the deportation of 72,000 people nationwide last year.

Secure Communities was initiated to target hardened criminals or suspected terrorists. But nearly a third of all immigrants deported because of Illinois’s participation in the fingerprint-sharing program have never been convicted of any crime, noted Quinn in the letter. And only a small minority of those deported from the country had ever been convicted of a serious crime.

Quinn suspended the state’s role in the program in November amid concerns about its effectiveness.

Activists say the program targets the immigrant community and allowed local police in areas where the program was enforced to detain and deport people for misdemeanor crimes.

“With the termination of the memorandum of agreement, Illinois State Police will play no role in Secure Communities, either actively or as a pass-through for information,” said Quinn.

Quinn’s office said in a statement that, “During the suspension, we voiced our concerns to ICE and asked them to prove that Secure Communities can and will be implemented as agreed to. After review, we were not satisfied and determined that ICE’s ongoing implementation of Secure Communities is flawed.”

In a statement, Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights said, “Governor Quinn took the state of Illinois one step forward toward sensible solutions for our broken immigration system.”

Image: Pepe Lozano/PW


Pepe Lozano
Pepe Lozano

Chicagoan Pepe Lozano was a staff writer with the People's World through 2014. He comes from an activist family and has lived on the city's southwest side in a predominantly Mexican-American community his whole life. Lozano now works as a union organizer.