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Undocumented immigrant study focuses on legislation

Wed, Feb 26, 2014

The Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) released a study February 4 that showed 511,000 undocumented immigrants working across the state’s economy and living in families that include relatives who are U.S. citizens. The immigrants’ family structure and their workforce participation were examined against a proposed reform law now before Congress.

Illinois undocumented report-2More than half (54 percent) of the state’s undocumented immigrants live in suburban Chicago, while 36 percent live in the city. Little Village is the Chicago neighborhood with the largest number of undocumented residents (20,000) but there are also large populations in Belmont Cragin, Gage Park, Albany Park and Brighton Park that outnumber the undocumented immigrants in Pilsen.

Although 84 percent of state’s undocumented population is primarily Latin American (77 percent from Mexico) it is also nine percent Asian, primarily from the Philippines, India, Korea and China. Another 5% are from Europe: mostly Poland, but also the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Three out of 5 undocumented immigrants are younger adults: between ages 25 and 44.

Contrary to the common image of single and unattached undocumented immigrants, the ICIRR study showed that 9 out of 10 live in family households.

Of those Illinois family households that include at least one undocumented immigrant, 87 percent are mixed-status; that is, they include a U.S. citizen or immigrant with lawful status. In just over half (55 percent) of Illinois married couples with an undocumented spouse, the other is lawfully present, either native-born, naturalized or a lawful permanent resident. Just over 1 in 3 (37 percent) of these couples include a spouse who is a U.S. citizen.

“Undocumented immigrants have strong equities in this country, a fact that provides a powerful argument against enforcement policies that separate these immigrants from their lawfully present spouses and children,” said the study, written by Fred Tsao with research from Rob Paral and Associates. “Indeed, the fact that 78,000 undocumented immigrants in Illinois are married to a U.S. citizen or lawfully present immigrant spouse further suggests that any immigration reform legislation should fix the unlawful presence bars and other obstacles that currently block the undocumented spouses from gaining lawful status through sponsorship of the lawfully present spouses.”

Sponsorship by lawfully present spouses would be quicker and simpler than legalization methods discussed in the Senate version of the immigration reform bill and would remove the threat of separation, Tsao said.

Undocumented immigrants participate in the state’s labor force at a rate just slightly higher than the general population (68 percent vs. 66 percent). These immigrants work in diverse areas of the Illinois economy:

• 20 percent of them are in manufacturing;
• 20 percent are in accommodations and food services;
• 11 percent in administrative and support services (including waste management);
• 10 percent are in construction

Other common occupations are sales and office work; transportation and material logistics; building and grounds cleaning and maintenance; management, business, science, arts and professional work.

However, nearly 1 in 3 of these undocumented workers (29 percent, or 146,000 persons) have annual income below the federal poverty level, which is $23,550 for a family of four. Another 34 percent (171,000 persons) earn between 100 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

The ICIRR report notes that the Senate immigration reform bill would require immigrants to maintain earnings at the federal poverty level in order to renew their provisional status. Those seeking a green card would need annual income at 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

According to the report, “To have a fair opportunity to gain lawful status through a legalization program, our state’s undocumented immigrants will need to have available to them English language and vocational training programs that would enable them to enhance their education and job skills. Such programming would enable legalizing immigrants to not only meet the requirements of legalization but also to contribute even more to our state’s economic and civic life.”

Language is another barrier for immigrants who seek legalization. Across the state, more than 4 in 5 undocumented immigrants speak Spanish, while many of the remainder speak an Asian language. As a result, outreach will have to be conducted primarily in Spanish. Organizations that serve people from the Philippines, India, Korea and China will need to be included.

Even though 36 percent of the undocumented population lives in the suburbs, there are fewer supports for them there than in Chicago.

Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-in-Chief

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