CHICAGO - Recent immigrant rights victories were celebrated here June 2 during an event in which hundreds commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
The recent passage of the Illinois DREAM Act and the termination of the Secure Communities program were highlighted at the event, which bore the theme "Unifying Voices to Empower our Community," by immigrant rights activists, labor leaders and state and local elected officials.
"This event speaks to the growing power of our immigrant community and the future of Illinois as a state that welcomes immigrants," said Alie Kabba, the coalition's president.
Kabba is originally from Sierra Leone, Africa, and came to Chicago 20 years ago. He has been a leader with the coalition for the last six years.
"We're here to showcase the diversity and strength that comes from the immigrant community representing Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa," he said. He added his group has much to celebrate, including helping to shape the economic and political landscape of the nation's immigrant population.
"The demographic future of Illinois' immigrant population demonstrates how vital lawmakers here pay attention to the needs and concerns of our communities," said Kabba.
Coalition leaders note their efforts over the years have helped make Illinois one of the most immigrant-friendly states in the country. The coalition has always prided itself in forging immigrant empowerment and helping to change the state's electoral demography. Advocates say their faith and justice values steer them to stand up for the most vulnerable in society.
Leading rallies, marches, voter mobilization campaigns or even collective prayer, the coalition says, its strength embraces democracy in action.
A diverse array of plated foods was served by leading Chicago chefs, including from local street vendors who sell fresh fruits and vegetables, tamales and Mexican ice cream.
Virginia Lugo, 29, is the vice-president of the Association of Street Vendors, formed in 1992. Speaking to patrons at a table where members of her group served fresh corn, Lugo said she has been working with aldermen to pass an ordinance allowing the mostly Mexican immigrant vendors sell their widely popular foods on the street.
"Most of the vendors are immigrants and can't get formal jobs," she said. "We're talking about mothers and grandparents, young and old."
For the past three weeks many of them have been targeted by the police, given steep fines and even been arrested, she said. Some of the police, even Latinos, have used profanity against the vendors, telling them to "go back to Mexico," said Lugo. "This is a job like any other; we're just trying to support our families. And the police shouldn't be abusing their power. We're not harming anyone, and we're not selling drugs."
Lugo notes the association's active members have followed all the legal obligations possible, including registeration to pay taxes and sanitation classes.
"We want our street vendors to run clean, legal operations," she said. "So we're calling on restaurant owners, the City Council, and community and business leaders to join our campaign in legalizing the sale of our ethnic foods."
During the program, three immigrant students were awarded the coalition's Dream Fund scholarships, based on their academic excellence.
One of them was 19-year-old Dulce Diaz, a University of Illinois at Chicago student, who came to the U.S. with her parents from Mexico when she was four. She said the recent passage of the Illinois DREAM Act was an important victory for young immigrants like herself seeking assistance in paying for college.
"It means giving students with a lot of talent an opportunity to reach their fullest potential," said Diaz. "However it breaks my heart when I hear so many immigrants that get their masters degrees but cannot pursue their careers."
The coalition is made up of 138 organizations throughout Illinois and is dedicated to promoting the rights of immigrants and refugees to full and equal participation in the civic, cultural, social and political life of society. The group says it envisions a future where all immigrants can live free of fear and out of the shadows.
Photo: From left to right, Dulce Diaz, Mauricio Ruiz, and Elizabeth Cervantes were students that received the American Dream Fund scholarship awards during the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights 25th anniversary celebration June 2. Each student will become the first in their family to graduate college. Pepe Lozano/PW.