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Immigration Wed May 18 2011

Opening the Door to America

by Brian Reilly

America, since even before its birth as a nation, has been defined as a place for seekers; a home where a variety of peoples, values, and aspirations can belong. Defining citizenship is part of defining America. Rather than melting into the national identity, each group of seekers has struggled their way past gatekeepers vigilantly guarding their own vision, interests and identity.

Carving out a place and claiming the rights that come with it is a political fight between those who stand on either side of the doorway to America. Who belongs? Who gets in? Who stays out? Who decides?

"Profanely." In a word, that is how Joshua Hoyt intends to address an announcement from Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn's office that services to immigrants will be cut by up to 74 percent in the proposed budget. Hoyt, as Director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), has a meeting with Quinn's senior staff and he intends to be direct.

In the 2010 elections, the ICIRR staffed get out the vote (GOTV) operations in 267 different precincts over 17 communities throughout the state. Those volunteers targeted 133,128 infrequent immigrant voters to turn out.

In a race that Quinn won by less than 32,000 votes carrying the Latino vote by a significantly smaller percentage than Rod Blagojevich had four years earlier, ICIRR's GOTV numbers get noticed. "You took essential immigrant services, you cut them dramatically, you did it in a way that sent a message to a group of people who worked very hard, who turned out [to vote], that, 'You don't count.'"

"That's what we're saying: you made a big mistake," Hoyt adds. "So, bad on the substance; bad on the arithmetic; and bad on the symbolism. And we're going to continue to make that case powerfully and occasionally profanely."

Opening and closing the door to America has long been a fundamental and defining conflict over what the nation is and who we are as a people and community. The ICIRR advocates for immigrant communities who they belong in that community.

As an umbrella organization of smaller religious, community and immigrant groups that provide a variety of services to both legal and illegal immigrants, the ICIRR has an extensive agenda, including a state version of the DREAM Act. ICIRR is also targeting ten bills in the General Assembly to be killed, characterizing them as anti-immigrant.

After Quinn's budget proposal was announced, 500 people organized with ICIRR to lobby their legislators and rally in the Capitol rotunda. Celena Roldan, Executive Director of Erie Neighborhood House, laid out the importance of the programs on the chopping block, saying, "These programs, such as the New Americans Initiative, help naturalized immigrants learn English, earn more and pay more in taxes."

The New Americans Initiative is estimated by ICIRR to generate $34 million per year in additional revenue. The state allotted $8.98 million to immigrant integration services, including the New Americans Initiative, during fiscal year 2011.

In the meeting with the Governor's staff, Hoyt was told that the proposed cuts were a miscommunication between the Governor's office and the budget office and that it will be corrected. "Democracy is about making your voice heard," Hoyt explains. "Sometimes you have to physically go down there along with a lot of other things as well but that's what an interest-based democracy is about. It's making sure that when you get screwed it's only a miscommunication and not a problem."

This is a common characteristic of American democracy between eras: moving, in numbers, towards a more-inclusive democracy. It is also the immigrant experience, the process of becoming American.

"You know, 141 years ago Erie served the Dutch, Italian, German, Polish and all that's changed is that the immigrant face has changed," Roldan explains after her speech. "It's more Hispanic, more Asian, more African, more of Arab decent... so, that's essentially what we need to remind people. We've always had immigrants, we'll continue to have immigrants, what we're saying is we just want to allow people to give back."

In an article published by the National Civic League, Joshua Hoyt writes, "We are so accustomed to the constant revitalization of civic life by each new generation of immigrants fighting to gain a toehold that it has become like our national civic wallpaper, a backdrop always seen but never noticed or appreciated."

"But perhaps that is just another necessarily repeated revitalizing phase in our American experiment in democracy -- the way we tone up our flabby bridging and bonding social capital muscles."

"In Illinois we have essentially won this fight," Hoyt says. "We've won in the sense that public opinion is overwhelmingly in support of reasonable solutions... those that want to deport everybody are a real minority in Illinois."

With the terms of the debate framed in their favor, the immigrant community can now avoid being co-opted by either political party and hold out their support to competition. "You know, I think that a tragedy for Latinos and for immigrants would be to become captives to the Democratic party," Hoyt argues. "Their issues talked about at election time and forgotten between elections.

"To treat your base in that way, to be able to take them for granted, is a very bad thing for the base. To the extent to which Latinos, in particular, become captives to the Democratic party... it's a terrible mistake by Republicans and it's very bad thing for the Latinos."

The political world has already moved on to 2012 but the activists are focused on their agenda. They will be well conditioned when it comes time for the next round of getting out the vote and they will remember who their friends are. "We're going to keep doing it," Hoyt declares. "Anybody who knows how to count sees that we are going to win."

 
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