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Lawmakers, advocates celebrate new statewide legal aid funding program

The “Access to Justice” program will fund community organizations that serve immigrants and working-class residents across the state.

From the left: Eréndira Rendón of The Resurrection Project, Tanya Woods of the Westside Justice Center, and Rebecca Shi of the American Business Immigration Coalition. All three women are credited with pushing the ‘Access to Justice’ legislation in Springfield.
Eréndira Rendón of The Resurrection Project, from left, Tanya Woods of the Westside Justice Center, and Rebecca Shi of the American Business Immigration Coalition. All three women are credited with pushing the ‘Access to Justice’ legislation in Springfield.
Carlos Ballesteros/Sun-Times

State and local officials converged Friday morning in Pilsen to celebrate a new program that funds legal aid groups that serve people ensnared in the criminal justice system across Illinois.

The program, known as “Access to Justice,” provides $10 million in state grants to community groups that provide legal help to immigrants facing deportation, the formerly incarcerated and other low-income residents.

After failing to pass during the legislative session in May, the program’s chief sponsors in Springfield managed to get it onto Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s $40 billion fiscal budget for 2020, which he signed in June.

Two Chicago nonprofits — the Westside Justice Center and The Resurrection Project — will serve as fiscal managers of the program. Together, they’ve chosen 60 organizations across the state that will receive money throughout the year.

“This money will go towards both large and small grassroots organizations doing the work on the ground,” said Tanya Woods, executive director of the Westside Justice Center.

Tanya Woods, executive director of the Westside Justice Center.
Marc Monaghan/The Resurrection Project

Woods joined dozens of lawmakers Friday at The Resurrection Project to mark the program’s launch.

Also in attendance were some of the program’s beneficiaries like Veronica Gloria, executive director of the Spanish Community Center in Joliet.

Gloria said her organization will, for the first time, hire a full-time immigration attorney to serve the growing number of immigrants in Will County.

“It became normal to think that if we’re in the suburbs, we’re not going to get help,” she said. “Access to Justice is going to change that. We can go back and tell our community that there is help.”

Veronica Gloria (center), executive director of the Spanish Community Center in Joliet.
Marc Monaghan/The Resurrection Project

Mark Mitchell, director of re-entry programs at Teamwork Englewood, said funding from the program will help his organization provide Ventra cards for people fresh out of prison, a common barrier they face in finding work.

“We know that if we get someone gainfully employed within the first 90 days of getting out of prison, they have a greater chance of staying out,” he said. “This program will help us to do just that.”

Mark Mitchell, director of re-entry programs at Teamwork Englewood.
Mark Mitchell, director of re-entry programs at Teamwork Englewood.
Marc Monaghan/The Resurrection Project

Rebecca Shi, executive director of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, said the Access to Justice program makes sound economic sense.

“We’re seeing job shortages in both high- and low-skilled industries that we represent,” she said. “When we reduce barriers to employment, we all win.”

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.