Late payments from state threaten aid to immigrants

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Myriad nonprofit organizations serving Latinos and other immigrants are cutting services and laying off staff members -- and some are in danger of closing their doors -- because the State of Illinois has failed to pay millions of dollars in promised funding.

The state government's financial crisis has been particularly tough on these community-based groups because some are relatively new and do not have large endowments, reserves or wealthy donors.

Finally this week, Gov. Quinn agreed to expedite a payment of $500,000 to organizations serving immigrants that are at risk of not meeting their payroll. Quinn's represenatative told me the check is on its way. But it will, at best, only delay closing for some of these organizations.

It's crucial that state funding be paid in full for work already performed.

Equally important, Illinois' future governor -- whoever that turns out to be -- and the state Legislature must understand the critical role these organizations play in improving the life of all the people of our state.

The Latino community makes up 15 percent of the population of Illinois, but receives only 5.5 percent of state grants, though the demand for services keeps growing.

As of July, all Illinois tax-exempt organizations were owed nearly $500 million in funding; and immigrant and Latino organizations report that the state government owes them several million in funding. These organizations have been forced to lay off staff, reduce services, borrow money and cut salaries to face this crisis, according to the Latino Policy Forum, a local advocacy organization.

"Without adequate funding," said Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, "these organizations will fold, leaving a growing community without access to critical services."

Consider the case of Mujeres Latinas en Accion, a nationally recognized Pilsen-based organization that has offered fundamentally important social services to Latino women and their families for more than 30 years. If Mujeres were to close -- a real possibility if the state does not come through -- it would be bad news for the 7,000 families the agency serves.

Maria Pesqueira, president and CEO of Mujeres, says her organization has strong fiscal policies and diverse funding sources, but having to wait six months for state funding has "put us in the hole."

"It is like a business that does not get its contracts paid for months," Pesqueira said. "This is a collection issue for us."

Mujeres assists victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence and offers afterschool tutoring, parenting classes and child care, among other programs.

State money accounts for about 60 percent of Mujeres' $2 million operating budget, with nearly 80 percent of that funding going directly to client services.

The Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugees Rights works with 71 immigrant service organizations, including Mujeres Latinas en Accion, to provide citizenship, English, child care, mental health counseling and other services. But the coalition and 40 of its client organizations are owed nearly $6 million for services already provided.

Quinn agreed this week to work with the coalition to expedite payment for those organizations most in danger of closing.

But this is not an exclusively Latino or immigrant issue. It is time elected officials understand that when we invest in the success of immigrant communities, we are in fact investing in Illinois.