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Mihalopoulos: Rauner's budget cuts rain on immigrants' parade to freedom

Gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner participates in the Mexican Independence Day parade in Pilsen in Septmember. File Photo. | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

Everybody loves a parade — though nobody might love a Chicago ethnic parade more than the politicians on the ballot in an upcoming election.

Before last year’s statewide voting and this spring’s city election, many candidates wouldn’t trade a spot at the front of an ethnic parade for all the gyros in Greektown or every last, delicious morsel of Mexican-style goat at Birrieria Zaragoza.

OPINION

But now that ​Bruce Rauner is in office, activists for immigrants say, ​the Republican governor is suddenly out of step with the tired, poor, huddled masses seeking freedom and opportunity in Illinois.

Rauner proposes eliminating state funding for several programs geared toward helping immigrants and refugees. His first budget would cut more than $7.5 million for programs such as “immigrant integration” services and “welcoming centers” for people from other countries.

“In my neighborhood, we have Asians, Africans, Syrians, Iraqis, Indians, Pakistanis,” state Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, says. “We have lots of people who have fled genocide — Bosnians, Sudanese, Rwandans, Cambodians. People who fled to save their lives, with nothing more than the clothing they were wearing. We have a responsibility not to let these people down.”

But Rauner aides say there’s not enough money to continue providing what the state has been doing for immigrants.

“We are really working hard to minimize the impact of this, but we really need to live within a balanced budget,” said Veronica Vera, spokeswoman for the Rauner administration’s Department of Human Services.

Vera said there’s still federal funding for some of the programs for immigrants. And she said her department runs other community-resource centers that also provide bilingual services and other services being offered by the welcoming centers.

“While the welcoming centers are zeroed out [in the budget for the next fiscal year], we’re not just canceling all these services,” Vera said. “To the best of our ability, we want to maintain that level that we offer them. In some cases, it may be less.”

Only help in getting citizenship, she said, will not be funded at all any longer.

“There are some different things we can do” to compensate for those cuts, she said. “We’re looking at a lot of different options.”

Harris doesn’t buy it.

“For people who are really struggling, the Rauner administration is closing every single door under the cruel guise that it’s shifting responsibilities to another program,” he says.

Harris called a hearing Tuesday in Springfield to let service providers testify about how the cuts would hurt them and their clients.

At the Family Focus nonprofit group’s centers for immigrants in Aurora and in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood, state funding has helped newcomers obtain U.S. citizenship and connect with services such as child care since February 2013, said the center director, Mariana Osoria.

“These are critical services,” Osoria said. “To be able to integrate immigrants into the state, we have to provide basic support, so they can become self-sufficient and able to contribute economically.”

But the activists didn’t get a chance to testify Tuesday, because a hearing on Rauner’s plans to reform the workers’ compensation system ran long.

The postponed hearing would have been on the same day as the Latino legislators’ event celebrating Cinco de Mayo, a holiday in the homeland of Chicago’s most numerous immigrant group, Mexicans.

Harris loves the event, just as much as he loves parades.

But the political commitment to the ethnic communities of Illinois should only start with parades and street festivals and cocktail receptions at the state Capitol.

When it comes to the state’s immigrants, Harris says, “We have a lot to be proud of, and we have a lot to be worried about.”