How Immigrants are Key to Illinois' Thriving Economy

Posted by on January 16, 2015.

This week, caught up with Rebecca Shi, Executive Director of the Illinois Business and Immigration Coalition, to talk about the major political issues Illinois is tackling in 2015, her work fighting for driver’s licenses for the undocumented community, and the bipartisan movement in Illinois for impactful immigration reform.

Read on to learn more about Rebecca's insider perspective on government transparency. Make sure to join your local chapter's next #ThinkFWD panel discussion event to participate in discussions like these. What are your goals for the future of Cook County? How do you hope the immigrant community will help achieve these goals?

Shi: For us at the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, one of our main goals is to make sure our economy continues to grow in Cook County and throughout the state. We are one of the largest producers in the country in terms of agriculture, specifically vegetables. We’re striving to create an environment that incentivizes business and allows these farms to thrive. 72% of farmworkers in Illinois are immigrants, and many are undocumented, so these issues go hand-in-hand. At the state level, we passed legislation to allow undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses. This means that when an undocumented person is driving to work, or taking their kids to school, they don’t have to worry about being pulled over for a broken tail light and deported.  


In Illinois, 40% of venture-backed businesses are started by immigrants and 90% of patents from University of Illinois are earned by immigrants. These entrepreneurs are driving growth in our state. For Cook County to thrive, these immigrants and their businesses have to thrive. They need to know they have a future here and have the security to know they can stay here. Additionally, 40% of workers in our hospitality industry are immigrants and many are undocumented. These people work hard and they do jobs that a lot of other people won’t do. So, immigrants are contributing to our economic growth on all levels. What are some of the ways you and Illinois Business Immigration Coalition have helped to highlight the stories of individual immigrants' experiences building their companies or struggling to deal with our broken and outdated immigration system?

Shi: Highlighting storieshas been the center of our advocacy work. There’s no better voice to advocate for immigration reform than the people who are actually affected by it. At the local level we do quarterly meetings and round tables with our Members of Congress. At each of these meetings we have local, successful immigrant entrepreneurs or business owners from their districts share their stories with their representatives. We had a fly-in last year with immigrant farm workers from Illinois in D.C. and they actually brought their produce to show that the agriculture industry is truly backed by immigrants. We also try to do a lot of work in our local news markets – we try incorporate big brands and companies that people recognize into our campaigns to show people who aren’t familiar with this issue how much it affects our state. In 2013, you fought for drivers licenses for the undocumented community, and now over 250,000 people in Illinois are eligible for a license. What is the impact of getting a drivers license for undocumented people?

Shi: The impact is huge. We know that in the last nine years the level of deportation has really rapidly increased. We worked with the Department of Homeland Security and found that the increase in deportations had a disproportionate impact on children. In fact, 56,108 children were left without parents or guardians due to deportation in Illinois between 2007 and 2013. The most common way that this happened was through a traffic violation, for example if someone is pulled over with a broken tail light on the way to work and is then found to be undocumented. We started this campaign because we want to stop the destruction of families. As we started, we talked to business associations like the Illinois Chamber and Illinois Farm Bureau. We found that employers were very supportive of their immigrant employees and were directly impacted by these deportations because they saw the impact on their businesses, so we actually had several conservative voices supporting this.


We want people to feel safe driving their kids to school and driving to and from work. I remember I spoke to one mother and she told me that for the first time she was able to drive her family on a vacation to a water park outside of Chicago. For over a decade her family had never taken a vacation because she was too afraid to drive. What can be done to empower immigrants and the children of immigrants to become more engaged in the political process?

Shi: The most important thing is voter turnout, which is especially low in immigrant communities. Turnout during midterm elections is strikingly lower than during presidential elections, but incredibly important state and local issues are on the ballot in midterm years. So, we need these community to turn out. There’s also data that indicates that naturalized citizens are much more engaged in the political process. There are systematic barriers that block people from being able to naturalize, and we need to reduce those barriers. I think both Democrats and Republicans can do a better job of connecting how the issues they care about can impact the immigrant community. In 2012, we were able to register over 20,000 new voters in 20 districts because the driver’s license legislation directly affected people in their communities. For many immigrant voters, they had family members who were undocumented and so this issue became personal. Illinois is an epicenter for immigrant businesses. How has the business community and the undocumented community in Illinois come together to work on policy issues?

Shi: Many business leaders themselves are immigrants or have personal connections to people who are undocumented. For example, many energy and utility companies here in Illinois have invested in many charter schools and many of the students at these schools are undocumented or come from immigrant communities. So, the people who work at these companies see the need for highly skilled engineers in their day jobs and also volunteer and invest in these schools where they meet students who have had family members deported. These personal connections are invaluable and getting well-known business leaders to speak out on behalf of immigration issues – beyond just H-1B visas – has helped to steer our coalition.

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