What Illinois Offers Undocumented Immigrants


Even as President Donald Trump cracks down on immigration, Illinois is going in the opposite direction, with both Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot going out of their way to proclaim the state and city as welcoming to immigrants.

Lightfoot last week announced the city would give 20% more – or $250,000 – to Chicago’s Legal Protection Fund, and that she was terminating Immigration and Customs Enforcement access to Chicago police databases.

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In June, Pritzker signed a law making Illinois the first state to ban private detention centers.

Another new law he signed in June, the RISE Act (Public Act 101-0021), aims to help low-income undocumented students afford college by permitting Illinois public universities to award them financially aid. It also removes a requirement that students complete a federal Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form in order to be eligible for a state Monetary Award Program (MAP) grant, and instead creates a separate form. Many undocumented students are wary about sharing their personal information with the federal government, or don’t fill out a FAFSA form because they are not eligible for federal higher education financial aid.

State Sen. Iris Martinez, D-Chicago, said it’s prudent for Illinois to help undocumented students who are Illinois residents with in-state colleges, including by having them pay in-state tuition versus the higher rates charged to out-of-state students.

“For our students that went through our own system, that we educated through our elementary and secondary schools, are now going to college, they should not have to pay outside because they’ve lived here all their lives,” she said. “And we don’t want to lose them to other states.”

City Colleges of Chicago’s Star Scholarship is open to undocumented students, and a spokeswoman for the city also sys City Colleges offers free high school equivalency and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

Immigration status is not a factor for students in elementary and high schools.

Per guidelines issued to schools from the Illinois State Board of Education: “The immigration status of the parent or child has no bearing on the rights of the student to enroll. The laws of Illinois and the United States guarantee all students, including undocumented immigrant students, access to a free public education through grade twelve until the age of 21, regardless of immigrant status.”

There’s also a stipulation that “districts must not inquire about the immigration status of a student or parent; they must not require parents or adult caretakers to provide any information concerning their or their children’s immigration status.”

Navigating the maze of government benefits and resources is always difficult, but it gets even more complicated when residency status is added to the mix.

Illinois Secretary of Human Services Grace Hou helped to create Immigrant Welcoming Centers, meant to serve as one-stop shops to help immigrants to reach the resources at the end of that maze.

They fell out of favor during the administration of former Gov. Bruce Rauner and when Illinois’ budget was at a standstill, but funding has now been restored and increased. Originally, the centers were run by state employees, but now the state helps fund centers run by nonprofit organizations, like Family Focus Nuestra Familia in the Hermosa neighborhood.

“We understand that families are complex. There may be families that have a whole different group of, you know, residency statuses in their families – someone might have been born here, someone may be undocumented and someone might be a legal permanent resident. We don’t ask those questions. Our hope really is to connect them to the services they need to meet their families’ goals, to provide language access … so that they can be successful residents in the state of Illinois,” Family Focus Vice President of Centers Mariana Osoria said Tuesday.

Resources can include everything from early childhood programs and home visits to language classes.

Varying circumstances make it difficult to say just what government services are, and are not, available to immigrants residing in the country illegally.

But by and large, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for Medicaid (exceptions could include an emergency health issue or pregnancy), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Still, hospitals must care for anyone in medical need. And Illinois covers health care for all children under its All Kids program.

And while undocumented immigrants may lack a Social Security number, they can – and legally should – file and pay income taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number issued by the Internal Revenue Service.

That doesn’t mean they will get unemployment benefits should an undocumented immigrant lose his or her job

According to the Illinois Department of Employment Security, “unemployment benefits are only available to people with permanent resident status or were otherwise permanently residing under color of law at the time when work was performed.”

Hou fears that Trump’s policies and threats of ICE raids will have a chilling effect that keeps immigrants from seeking the benefits for which they are eligible.

“The fear will drive them away from the program. As state government and trying to work in close collaboration with our community partners, there’s probably no bigger thing that you can fight against than fear. Because it’s the unknown. It’s nebulous. So we can say you’re eligible for this (program), right? But the fear of what may happen to them if they participate in this program either now, or in the future as more federal policies get unveiled … I think that we’re seeing this fear in communities,” Hou said.

Earlier this month, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White sent notice that his office does not share information about a person’s legal status with ICE, following national reports of agents using other states’ driver’s license databases to identify undocumented persons.

Illinois residents who do not have visas can apply for a Temporary Visitors Driver’s License; according to White’s office, more than 216,000 are currently legally driving in Illinois on a TVDL.  

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky


Related stories:

ICE Raids Rattle Chicago’s Immigrant Communities

Despite Trump Threats, ICE Raids Fail to Materialize in Chicago

Churches Jump Into Action With Threat of Immigration Sweeps

Chicago Prepares for Possible Immigration Crackdown


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