From WILL - News Headlines -

State Budget Cuts May Hit Immigrant Assistance Hard

(Reported by Dan Petrella and Jay Lee of CU-CitizenAccess)

Champaign County's immigration-service agencies may have to bear some of the burden for the state's burgeoning debt - and they aren't happy about it.

With the state's deficit projected to hit $15 billion by the end of the year, Gov. Pat Quinn proposed large-scale budget cuts for the next two fiscal years, and last week the state Legislature approved a 2012 budget that makes even deeper cuts. This includes drastic cuts to funding for grants to agencies that assist immigrants and refugees.

"These cuts are more than just substantial - they're devastating," said Deborah Hlavna, the director of the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center, 302 S. Birch St., Urbana.

And on top of the cuts to services for immigrants and refugees, the 2012 budget, which awaits the governor's signature, would cut overall funding for the Department of Human Services by nearly $670 million, about 17 percent of its total budget.

"The ripple effect will be enormous," Hlavna said before the Legislature passed its budget. "We're all waiting nervously to see what's going to happen, but it's not looking too good right now."

The final impact of the budget cuts remains unclear. Senate Democrats attempted to restore some of the money for human services by adding it to a bill to fund capital improvement projects. But the House did not vote on the measure before the spring legislative session adjourned. Quinn has suggested he may call lawmakers back to vote on the package during the summer.

The governor originally recommended cutting funds for immigrants and refugees when he presented his budget plan to lawmakers in February.

His proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year, which begins July 1, would have seen a $1.7 billion increase overall from this year despite widespread cuts at several areas, including human services, education, public safety and health care coverage. But the budget legislators approved calls for spending $2 billion less than the he proposed.

"These proposed cuts are a horrendous mistake," Joshua Hoyt, director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said, referring to Quinn's proposed cuts to immigration services. "We're not happy, to say the least."

Hoyt said that the coalition predicts that at least 15 agencies that serve immigrants will have to close if the proposed cut in funding takes effect. The Asian and Latino communities in Illinois will be hurt the most, he said.

In Champaign County, the Latino population has more than doubled in the last decade, while the Asian population has grown by 55 percent, according to 2010 census data.

This reflects a growing trend in the entire state. The Asian community in Illinois grew by 38 percent in the last 10 years, and the Latino population increased by 33 percent.

The refugee center's Hlavna said that agencies in central Illinois will feel the impact the most because of limited fundraising capabilities in the midst of a growing immigrant community.

"We're lucky in that we only rely partially on state funding," she said. "That won't be true for a lot of others in the area."

Immigration advocacy groups and agencies like Hoyt's have voiced their displeasure over the cuts, pointing to how immigration services make up slightly more than 1 percent of the state's budget.

"We should be giving more funding to help immigrants and refugees, not less," Hoyt said. "This is an issue that isn't going away, and is going - and this cut in funding would be a mistake."

Esther Wong, executive director of the Illinois-based Chinese American Service League, said she has seen immigration agencies face funding problems ever since she began working with Chinese-American communities in Illinois in 1978 - but nothing like what Quinn proposed.

"We have not faced any drastic cuts like this ever before," Wong said. "I didn't believe it at first."

The Latino Partnership of Champaign County will also receive less state funding with the proposed cuts, but David Adcock, the group's treasurer, said he had mixed reactions to Quinn's proposal.

"I can't say I was surprised because I knew everything was going to be on the table. Something needs to be done with the state's financial situation," Adcock said. "Did I think the cuts would be so drastic? No. But it is what it is."

The cuts in funding for immigration and refugee services would lessen financial support for grant-receiving agencies such as the refugee center, but the wider cuts to the Illinois Department of Human Services would compound the pain.

"The weakening of the (Department of Human Services) will hurt the most for all the smaller groups in Illinois," Hlavna said. "We work alongside them all the time and when we can't meet our clients' needs, we will direct them and go with them to the DHS."

The refugee center has adapted to the state's history of slow payments, but the cuts to the Department of Humans Services throws the agency a new curveball, she said.

"We've been waiting on our check for a long time," Hlavna said with a laugh. "We've been smart enough not to depend on their money. But we need their help and their services."

Sarah Baumer, an administrator at the Department of Human Services' Champaign County office, declined to comment on the looming budget cuts, but conceded that they will curb the resources the office can provide.

"Adjustments will be made," Baumer said.

Anh Ha Ho, co-director of the refugee center with Hlavna, said that the major needs of immigrants in Champaign County pertain to issues such as food, money, health care and housing - all of which fall into the jurisdiction of the Department of Human Services.

Local immigration-service organizations such as the refugee center don't provide many direct services, Ho said, rather relying on government agencies like Department of Human Services. A great deal of Ho's time is spent helping clients with paperwork and applications for the services through the department.

"We take advantage of the services in place because that's really all immigrants need," Ho said. "We're here to make sure that they get the help they need."

And in a county in which nearly one out of every 10 residents is an immigrant, the budget cuts to human services will especially affect a Champaign County population that has limited access to non-English-speaking resources.

"We have the immigration population of a big metropolitan city without the big city resources," Hlavna said. "We have to rely on each other and we really have to rely on the DHS."

Adcock, of the Latino Partnership, said that a drop in available assistance by the human-services agency may alter the approach of immigration-services organizations

"It'll be harder for people to get the help they need, so we may have to look into different options available," Adcock said. "We may have to look more towards private resources, whether that's local churches or donors or whatever it is."

Funding was a major concern for Champaign County immigration-service agencies even before the proposed cuts, Adcock said, but they will not have to focus their efforts on tightening budget and fundraising.

"Everyone's been on the bubble and funding will always be a concern," Adcock said with a smile. "But we're still here.