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State of the State: Lack of federal action could create a patchwork of local immigration policies

Bethany Jaeger
WUIS/Illinois Issues
Without immigration reform at the federal level, more local governments could try to enact policies, despite a lack of resources to enforce them.

The week the Village of Carpentersville in northern Kane County was scheduled to vote whether to make English the official language for village operations, immigration policy reforms remained in limbo at the national level.

Carpentersville has a particular interest in that federal legislation. Just under 35,000 residents, the village is about 40 percent Latino, according to the village's 2005 "partial Special Census" requested from the U.S. Census Bureau, says Village Manager Craig Anderson. 

He says there's no way to know how many residents are undocumented immigrants, but there's pressure to do something about them. The village board has been hearing from at least one person during public comment periods at most meetings since last October.

Absent federal action on immigration reform, Carpentersville's village board is considering two ordinances, one making English the official language. It would prohibit the village from posting signs, sending newsletters or issuing other communications in Spanish and English. The ordinance wouldn't stop the rest of the community and private businesses from using any language they wanted. A second ordinance would fine landlords who rent to undocumented immigrants and employers who hire them.

Anderson says there's concern that the ordinances create a false expectation about what the village can really do.

"I certainly would agree there is a problem in the United States," he says. "And I can understand why local governments and some of our board members and other municipalities have started to take steps to try and address it on a local level, the frustration of not having things addressed at the federal level. But I think of it in terms of its effectiveness — there's a question of whether or not we can really enforce it." For instance, he says, "asking landlords to somehow verify that their tenants are legal — I don't know that there's a process in place for them to do that, number one."

The unknowns underscore the need for immigration reform to be addressed at a higher level, he says. 

The federal immigration bill urged by President George W. Bush but opposed by conservative Republicans was designed to tighten border patrols, allow employers to hire temporary workers and provide a path to legalization for about 12 million immigrants. But it's been shaped and reshaped with about 40 amendments. The measure was stalled as of mid-June. 

Without immigration reform at the federal level, more local governments could try to enact policies, despite a lack of resources to enforce them.

Fred Tsao, policy director for the Chicago-based Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights advocacy group, says local officials concerned about the changing dynamics in their communities could try following Carpentersville's path. "You'll see a crazy patchwork of local policies that, of course, won't be uniform. And with that, a crazy patchwork of immigrant community settlements, as a result."

Illinois' immigrant populations have swelled in the Chicago region. The U.S. Census shows Cicero is more than three-fourths Latino. Tsao says Aurora, Elgin, Joliet and Waukegan also have experienced increasing Latino immigration. So have the central Illinois communities of Beardstown, Bloomington and Champaign. 

Large Asian populations also have settled in the northwestern counties around Chicago.

"It's really everywhere," Tsao says.

To encourage eligible residents to become citizens, the coalition is partnering with state and local agencies in the New Americans Initiative. Launched in 2004 by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the network of churches, community groups and immigration counselors helps immigrants who have been here legally for five years go through the naturalization process.

Though its clients are legal permanent residents, many still have family members who are undocumented, says Karla Avila, New Americans Initiative director. She says it's a scary time for the immigrant community, given that mixed families could be separated and disintegrated. "If nothing happens at the national level, then persecution of those who are here illegally will continue," she says. "We just need to take into account that there are mixed families where some of them are already legal here, and some others are taking the step to becoming U.S. citizens."

This year, all 50 states studied immigration policy changes, more than doubling the number that were considering the issue last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a Washington-based membership group of state lawmakers from across the country. But only 18 states have enacted changes so far this year. Two of them, Idaho and South Carolina, moved toward restricting public health benefits for legal residents.

Illinois provides subsidized health insurance to 24,000 children of immigrant parents, some of whom are legally here on visas and others of whom lack documentation but are eligible for All Kids, according to Teresa Kurtenbach, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.

Republican Sen. Chris Lauzen of Aurora tried to change that by requiring families to prove citizenship in order to qualify for All Kids. Lauzen's measure also required proof of citizenship before becoming a state employee. His measure was never called.

But one immigration policy proposal that did make its way to the final passage stage — before it was held until this fall — would make Illinois one of 31 states considering granting driving privileges to undocumented immigrants, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Illinois measure, supported mostly by Chicago-area Democrats, would allow undocumented immigrants to get driver's certificates so they could buy car insurance and drive legally. 

The issue drew more than 1,000 advocates to Springfield in March to support the certificates and more funding for English classes. They stood shoulder to shoulder on three tiers of the Capitol rotunda as they chanted and waved American flags.

Uncertainty in Washington, however, makes lawmakers nervous to support such policy changes at the state level, says Democratic Sen. Iris Martinez of Chicago.

"If we can get something solid from Washington, then at least it helps us over here be able to have people feel more comfortable about voting for something like this," she said in early June. "Because it's really about public safety."

The measure also stalled because no Republicans agreed to support it, Tsao says. He adds end-of-session budget negotiations that extended into summer also sidelined the driver's issue.

Even if Congress approves a federal immigration reform plan, it might not be everything it's cracked up to be, says Beardstown Mayor Bob Walters.

The central Illinois town is home to the state's largest pork processing plant, now owned by Cargill Inc., which has attracted thousands of Latino immigrants. The 2003 Census numbers show Beardstown as having 5,900 residents, about 17 percent of whom are Latino. But Walters says, when accounting for undocumented immigrants, it's closer to 8,000 residents, more than 30 percent of whom are Latino. This year's kindergarten class enrollment is 70 percent Latino, he says.

"We've got a lot of wonderful Hispanic families that live in our city," says Walters, a Beardstown native serving his fifth term as mayor. "They buy homes. They fix them up. They're really decent, caring people that have the same American dream that you and I have. But there are those who are illegal when they cross the border, and they don't seem to think that that's a problem. They think in their own minds and hearts, probably, that they haven't committed a crime. They just come here to work."

The most recent blow to the community came this spring when a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid led to  arrests of 62 residents. They worked for a cleaning service that operated within the Cargill meat processing plant, but Cargill wasn't involved in the charges. The managers of the cleaning service later pleaded guilty to hiding undocumented immigrants who used fake identities.

"It proves [to be] a problem for everybody," Walters says. "We can track a cow with Mad Cow disease on some small farm in Canada, but we can't tell who's living next door to us."

Still, he doesn't feel comforted by the federal immigration proposals. He says a reformed legalization process, a guest-worker program and a merit-based system to identify immigrants with desirable skills distracts from what needs to be done: cracking down at the borders.

"I think the word comprehensive is nothing but a cover for the political parties, both parties," he says. "The Democrats want the Hispanic vote. And the big corporations want access to cheap labor, and that's exactly what the bill does."

Without federal action, he says he has no interest in enacting such ordinances as establishing English as the official language. He expects the town to stay the same, and the five-member Hispanic Advisory Board to continue reaching out to immigrants, linking them to services, serving as interpreters and educating English- and Spanish-speaking residents about each other.

"We're just going to have to depend on the federal government to enforce the existing immigration laws, which are probably sufficient," he says. "If the federal government can't do it, they can't expect the local communities to be the enforcement of a national issue."

But many are likely to try.

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