This is a story about how long it takes for well-intentioned congressional funding laws to start benefiting folks at the local level, and how we need to be persistent and patient in working for immigrant access to federal resources.
In March of 2021, Congress passed the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA), and President Joe Biden signed it into law. Through this bi-partisan plan close to one trillion dollars were made available to businesses, hospitals, schools and universities, as well as state and local governments, in order to jump-start the US economy after the severe economic slump caused by the COVID 19 pandemic during 2020. Forty-five million dollars were given to Champaign County under ARPA – with further significant funds going to the cities of Urbana and Champaign. In May of 202O, the Champaign County Board began public hearings about how to spend those funds.
ISCU was ready and presented a memorandum to the County Board on the need for emergency housing for poor immigrants in Champaign-Urbana. ISCU also spoke at the Board’s ARPA hearings, highlighting how important it was to include immigrant needs in Champaign County’s fiscal planning. We were fortunate in finding a majority of the Board receptive to our initiative. Stephanie Fortado, chair of the County Board’s Finance Committee, proposed to hold another Board hearing exclusively on the needs of the immigrants in Champaign County and asked us to help organize it. We reached out to the other immigrant rights and service organizations in C-U to participate and invited representatives of immigrant communities from Africa, Afghanistan, Mexico and Guatemala to speak at the hearing. Held in July 2021, the hearing on immigrant issues was an eye opener for County Board members: many simply had not been aware of the endless difficulties poor immigrants are facing to live decent lives in our community, from $300 charges for rides to ICE appointments in Chicago to over-priced, roach-infested apartments.
As a consequence, the County Board asked us to work out a proposal for an ARPA project directly benefiting immigrants in our county. In arduous negotiations over six weeks, the Immigrant Cooperative – consisting of ISCU, the New American Welcome Center, The Refugee Center, the Immigration Project, the Immigration Forum and Pixan Konob’ Interpreters – hammered out a $550,000 project over two years that will offer professional training for Q’anjob’al interpretation (the Mayan language most widely spoken in C-U), and mental health services for immigrants, in person and by telephone. ISCU will be able to hire a halftime MSW social worker to deal with social and mental issues among our clients. The County Board approved the project in November and we are now waiting for the contract from the County Executive. We hope to launch the project this month, eleven months after the ARPA funds were approved by Congress.
This is the first Champaign County ARPA project getting off the ground. ISCU will push for immigrants benefiting from the county’s ARPA plans for housing and small business loans as well. But we are off to a good start. Immigrants need to be considered in Champaign County financial planning from here on out.