Rob Paral discusses the state of Illinois and Greater Chicago area leading by example on immigrant inclusion and legal policies.
The state of Illinois and Greater Chicago have some of the largest immigrant populations in North America. Metropolitan Chicago alone is home to 1.6 million immigrants—one of every five residents. As a reflection of this population, the state and local governments in the Chicago area have been recognized as having some of the most pro-immigrant public policies in the nation, ranking as the New American Economy’s "most immigrant friendly city in America" in 2019.
Our Chicago Council report, “A Global Welcome: Metro Chicago’s Approach to Immigrant Inclusion,” published just a year ago, documented the importance of immigration to the area. The report described the region’s unique history of immigration, from Chicago’s explosive population growth in the 19th century to recent arrivals that have brought new diversity, hailing from Mexico, India, and Poland. The report also described the importance of immigration status in metro Chicago. Because of a dysfunctional federal system of legal immigration, nearly a quarter of all immigrants lack legal status in the region. Immigrants, especially those from Latin America, are given few legal ways to enter the country, although they fill many of the low-paid and arduous jobs plentiful in the regional economy.
Political support for immigrant inclusion has also led to many pro-immigrant policies in Illinois. The state has long allowed undocumented college students “in-state” tuition rates at state colleges and universities, and provides upwards of $20 million a year to non-profit organizations that help immigrants navigate and apply for public benefits, obtain US citizenship, and receive legal assistance to apply for permanent residence. Moreover, the state prohibits for-profit immigrant detention facilities.
New Steps Toward Immigrant Inclusion
Since the publication of the 2020 Chicago Council report, state and local policies toward immigrants continue to evolve, especially in legal services. In the summer of 2020, the state rolled out a program in which nonprofit groups are given financial support to expand legal services to those who do not have permanent legal status. With about $7.5 million in funding for 2022, the program assesses candidates’ potential eligibility for asylum, visas for victims of domestic violence, and for other paths to legal permanent residence.
In 2021 Illinois made two other notable steps toward supporting immigrant integration. Immigrant seniors who are undocumented became eligible for a state-funded medical insurance program that resembles Medicaid. With an aging undocumented population, this new program is notable because of the lack of any substantive immigrant legalization option at the federal level for decades.
Illinois has also completely banned state prisons and local jails from accepting and cooperating with “detainers” issued by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These detainers are used by ICE to obtain custody of immigrants leaving that of state or local law enforcement, and has led to undocumented immigrants entering deportation proceedings after infractions as minor as traffic violations.
Finally, Cook County, the state’s most populous county and home to Chicago, is in the initial stages of enabling its public defenders to represent immigrants with cases in immigration court. Federal immigration court handles matters of deportation and certain other processes, and a large share of those in immigration court often cannot afford a lawyer.
Awaiting Federal Opportunities for Immigrant Legal Status
As home to two million immigrants, it makes sense that Illinois would develop supportive programs to facilitate immigrant integration. However, the state’s network of non-profit organizations, who provide the bulk of immigration assistance, may be seriously tested in the near future. While passage of immigration reform is far from certain, the US Senate recently opened the door to the possibility of a new legal pathway to citizenship for some young immigrants through a new bill named the America’s Children Act. This comes after a glimmer of hope arrived in the form of a bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate in August.
Even in the absence of national immigration reform, the steps taken by Illinois and metro Chicago are examples of how cities and states can welcome immigrants and create a more hospitable and productive civic environment. Coincidentally, this September 10-19 is Welcoming America’s “Welcoming Week” in the United States, in which the contributions of immigrants are celebrated, and the inclusion of immigrant communities is promoted by groups nationwide. The immigrant-friendly policies of Chicago and Illinois best exemplify how we can uplift the conversation on immigration, but there is work to do nationally. Paving the way for a new phase of immigrant integration begins with affirming that welcome at every level.