Brown: A wall not what this bipartisan group built for immigrants

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State Sen. Iris Martinez speaking at a public meeting in 2012. File Photo. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Even as Donald Trump was wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination in part with his get-tough rhetoric on immigration, Illinois political leaders moved in a decidedly different direction in the waning days of the spring legislative session.

With bipartisan support that included backing from Gov. Bruce Rauner, lawmakers renewed a state health insurance program for low-income children that includes coverage for undocumented youth.

They did so despite a last-minute push by a national anti-immigrant (it might prefer anti-illegal immigrant) group that tried to rally opposition.

The small victory went mostly unnoticed amidst the broader hostilities in Springfield, but on Friday the coalition that led the fight to preserve the Covering All Kids program will bring the team back together to celebrate its success in the face of anti-immigrant sentiment.


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Archbishop Blase Cupich is expected to join a group of business, health care, political, faith and community leaders at St. Ignatius College Prep for the victory lap, said Jesse Hoyt, organizer of the Healthy Illinois Campaign.

Such celebrations are often held as part of bill-signing ceremonies, but in this case, Rauner quickly signed the legislation to beat a July 1 deadline and is not expected to attend Friday’s festivities.

For those involved in fighting for immigrant rights, any opportunity to recognize a win is regarded as a good opportunity while waiting for progress on the larger issues of immigration reform.

And with Trump’s pledge to build a wall along the Mexican border and remove the millions of immigrants living here without legal permission, it’s never a bad idea to serve up a reminder that immigrant-bashing has its limits in Illinois as a political proposition.

“In Illinois there is a very broad coalition that protects undocumented children,” said Rebecca Shi, executive director of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, a key partner in the campaign.

Undocumented children were actually only a small fraction of the 41,000 children who would have been affected by the scheduled expiration of the Covering All Kids Health Insurance Act.

But the fight to save the program became a proxy for preserving coverage in the state’s more encompassing All Kids program, first enacted in 2006 under then Gov. Rod Blagojevich, which insures more than 1.4 million children statewide regardless of immigration status.

Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, said the church’s involvement with the campaign was a natural decision given its policies on health care and immigration.

“We’re not newcomers to the advocacy position that health care is a basic human right,” Gilligan said.

Sen. Chris Nybo of Elmhurst, one of many Republicans who supported the bill, argued that it is in keeping with his pro-life philosophy.

“Being supportive of children and families should transcend immigration status,” Nybo said.

Nybo said the legislation also made sound financial sense because it allows the state to continue to receive federal matching funds for low-income children who are citizens or otherwise living here legally.

The state Healthcare and Family Services Department pegged the total cost of Covering All Kids at $49 million annually with the state bearing $8.6 million of that.

The bill’s chief sponsors were Democrats, Sen. Iris Martinez and Rep. Lisa Hernandez. But Republican Leaders Jim Durkin in the House and Christine Radogno in the Senate were also credited with helping shepherd the legislation through their chambers.

House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton kept the bill separate from other Medicaid-funding legislation to keep it from getting caught up in the partisan budget wars.

Legislators were not deterred by an Action Alert issued by the Federation for American Immigration Reform warning that: “Subsidizing health coverage for illegal aliens encourages further illegal immigration to our state.”

I realize that statement will resonate with many of the people reading this column, and for that, they have Trump — and, I should hope, a long wait for the next election.

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