Ill. Governor To Announce New Benefits For Immigrants

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

CHICAGO, Dec. 12 -- Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) will announce on Wednesday a wide-ranging set of measures meant to better integrate immigrants, legal and illegal, into the state's economy, education system and workforce.

The measures are the result of an executive order that Blagojevich signed in November 2005 requiring state agencies to coordinate with community groups, business leaders and religious institutions to better serve immigrant populations.

Key points of the New Americans program include increasing the number of dual-language schools, English-as-a-second-language programs and bilingual staff members at state agencies, as well as providing job training for skilled and unskilled immigrants. The program is described as the first of its kind nationwide.

"It's a fact that immigrants are driving the job market, immigrants are driving the housing market," said Gerardo Cardenas, the governor's spokesman. "So helping them acquire English language proficiency and providing better services, moving them up the job ladder, is strategic for the future of the state."

The measures were developed by a new state agency; a policy council of Illinois business, religious and community leaders; and a national advisory panel that included former Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner Doris Meissner.

"The debate going on in our country is focused almost entirely on illegal immigration, but we overlook the fact that there's a very large legal immigration taking place," she said. "It's in our interest as a nation to make sure that process is working well."

About 1.7 million immigrants make up 12.6 percent of Illinois's population and 17 percent of its workforce, according to a recent report by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. The state has about 425,000 illegal immigrants.

The New Americans program promises health care, education and other state services for illegal and legal immigrants. The program will be publicly and privately funded.

Susan Tully, national field director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the program will put Blagojevich in violation of U.S. immigration law.

"He does not have the right under the Constitution, even as governor of Illinois, to grant benefits to people who haven't been cleared by immigration and customs agents," she said.

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