CHICAGO (AP) — More than two months after taking the reins of one of the nation's most immigrant-friendly states, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has offered mixed signals about his stance on immigration.
He's publicly backed "comprehensive reform" and tells stories of his Swedish dairyman grandfather's immigration, but rescinded executive orders aimed at making the state more welcoming to immigrants. He refused to join other GOP governors in a lawsuit against President Barack Obama's immigration executive action, but proposed slashing roughly $8 million in services to help refugees and immigrants who want citizenship.
The contrasting views have left many immigration reform advocates in Illinois, including a leading Democratic congressman and a growing voting bloc, waiting for clarity.
"Like much of Gov. Rauner's agenda, it's a big question mark," Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights executive director Lawrence Benito said.
Rauner says he's "pro-immigration." He told a group of Latino business leaders in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood Friday that he'll be pushing Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year. He didn't detail what he thinks that legislation should include, but said the U.S. should "help those folks who are here to become citizens." He didn't discuss his plans for the state.
And at an Illinois Business Immigration Coalition event earlier this month with Republicans, he talked about lessons gleaned from his grandparents' struggles and his choice of Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, born in Florida to Cuban and Ecuadoran immigrants.
"I think we have it backward in America. I think we make legal immigration almost impossible and we make illegal immigration relatively easy. I think we've got to flip that around," he told reporters the following day near Springfield.
U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Chicago — known nationally for being an immigration activist and sponsoring immigration legislation — said he wants to work with Rauner. Rauner spokesman Lance Trover said a meeting is planned for April.
"It's a mistake to not continue the very clear trajectory that Illinois has taken on immigration," Gutierrez said.
Rauner's lack of specificity on the issue has been particularly noticeable in Illinois, where foreign-born individuals make up roughly 14 percent of the population. Connected activists rallied nearly a half-million people to march Chicago in 2006. Illinois has since established a private scholarship fund for immigrant students living in the U.S. without legal permission, and in 2013 began offering drivers' licenses to immigrants living here illegally.
What Rauner has done is cancel two immigrant-related executive orders put in place by predecessor Democrat Pat Quinn. One prohibited state law enforcement agencies from stopping anyone based solely on citizenship or immigration status. The other provided ways to help immigrants benefit from Obama's executive action designed to curb deportations.
Rauner said Friday the two orders, among the seven of Quinn's that Rauner rescinded, were part of an agenda "that was just not productive" and that he planned to set his own "pro-immigration" agenda.
The governor has won praise from advocates for not joining 26 states in a federal lawsuit to block Obama's sweeping action, announced in November. Rauner told reporters it wasn't "productive" to sue.
Rauner has defended his proposed budget cuts, saying he needs to close a roughly $1.6 billion deficit. He's proposed slashing more than $6 million from Department of Human Services' budget for "integration services," which provide language and citizenship classes through community organizations. Another nearly $2 million on the chopping block is Illinois' share for refugee mental health services and more than half a dozen welcoming centers, which offer language services and help with applying for benefits.
"Some programs have to be cut, the money's not there," Rauner said last week when asked about the proposed cuts.
Immigrants and advocates say the state-funded services are critical to assimilating and helping people potentially become citizens.
There was a roughly 11 percent jump in the number of people living in Illinois who became U.S. citizens from 2010 to 2013, and new citizens are a reliable source of voter registrations. Most of the roughly 27,000 Illinois voters that Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights registered in 2014 were new citizens.
Claudia Timm, an immigrant from Mexico who married an American citizen, said navigating the citizenship process on her own was costly and complicated. She relied on the West Suburban Action Project, which provides taxpayer-funded help, and became a citizen in November.
"It's made a big difference for me and my family," the 40-year-old suburban mother said. "I can vote."
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