CHICAGO – Governor Rod Blagojevich today announced the “New Americans Initiative,” a state program that will provide $3 million for services that help new immigrants become active and engaged new citizens.
“Right now, there are 1.5 million people living in our state who were born in other countries. Countries like Mexico, Honduras, Poland, Russia, and Korea, just to name a few. Only about 600,000 of those people – less than half – are United States citizens,” said Governor Rod Blagojevich. “Under our New Americans Initiative, neighborhood organizations, religious groups, community colleges, and immigration counselors will all work together to reach out to people who are eligible for naturalization, and do what it takes to help them to become citizens.”
The Initiative grew out of hearings held in late 2003 by the Illinois General Assembly’s Joint Task Force on Illinois Immigrants and Refugees, co-chaired by Sen. Martin Sandoval and Rep. Harry Osterman. Task force leaders, Congressman Luis Gutierrez, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), and other immigrant community organizations approached Governor Blagojevich, who endorsed the idea and incorporated it into his proposed state budget.
"The creation of the New Americans Initiative has the potential to help tens of thousands of men and women each year take that essential first step toward citizenship, so that they too can fully share in the rights that citizens enjoy and also help shoulder its responsibilities," Congressman Luis Gutierrez said. "And we are fortunate to have a Governor who is committed to creating policies that protect and respect immigrants and that help open the doors of opportunity for Latinos and all minorities, so that they too can make the most of the American dream."
Of the more than 1.5 million immigrants live in Illinois, over 340,000 Illinois immigrants are eligible for citizenship, with another 140,000 becoming eligible within the next five years. The goals of the New Americans Initiative would be to directly assist 20,000 immigrants with the naturalization exam per year.
“So many in my district are seeking the rights behind citizenship,” said State Senator Martin Sandoval (D-Chicago). “This initiative will reach out to those who might be scared, those working two jobs, or those without enough English skills, and say to them, you can become a citizen, and we will help you do it. I represent the heart of the Mexican community that has given so much to the state of Illinois. It is time we invest back into them.”
The Initiative will fund coordinated services through community-based organizations to walk immigrants through each step in becoming a U.S. citizen. These services include:
English as a Second Language (ESL) education
English preparation and civics training
Public education efforts
“Illinois is a diverse state and the goal of this project is to have more people take advantage of becoming U.S. citizens, as others have done in the past. Immigrants have done more than ‘get by’ in this state, they have thrived and added value to our neighborhoods and communities. Encouraging citizenship for these newcomers only makes sense,” said State Representative Harry Osterman (D-Chicago).
In addition to Governor Blagojevich, the Initiative has the support of more than 15 state senators and more than 28 state representatives on both sides of the aisle.
“By taking the step toward citizenship, immigrants demonstrate our attachment and commitment to our new homeland, and our willingness to participate in and contribute to our state’s civic and political life. By becoming citizens, immigrants truly become Americans, and invest their lives in the future of this country. Our elected officials recognize this and immigrants in Illinois can be proud of our elected leadership’s foresight and vision,” said Juan Salgado, President of ICIRR.
Maria Fernandez, resident of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood and a student currently studying for her citizenship test at Instituto Del Progresso Latino said, “We have jobs, we have houses, we have cars, and we paid our taxes just last week. Now we want the American Dream. I’m happy that Illinois wants to help more people like me become citizens.”