Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 18, 2011

Police Arrest 10 Protesters at Immigration Hearing

A federal program that involves state and local police agencies in immigration enforcement is stirring up controversy. The program helps federal authorities see if criminal suspects have permission to be in the United States. Immigrant advocates say the program snares too many people who haven't committed crimes.

This spring, Gov. Pat Quinn made Illinois the first of three states to withdraw from the program. But now the feds are saying states have to participate, whether they want to or not. A big question is whether Quinn will mount a legal challenge. At a hearing Wednesday night in Chicago over the program, a crowd turned raucous and 10 people were arrested, according to the Chicago Police Department.

In a word, the program has meant fingerprints. State and local police forces routinely get them from suspects as part of booking. Most jurisdictions send the fingerprints to the FBI for a national criminal background check. The Secure Communities program makes it easier for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to use the fingerprints. President Obama's administration has said the goal is to focus immigration-enforcement resources on deporting criminals like murderers, rapists and others who threaten public safety.

ICE reports that Secure Communities has helped lead to the deportation of more than 650 convicted criminal aliens in Illinois alone. But, the program has also led to hundreds of deportations of people without criminal records. Opponents of the program say it also erodes public trust in local cops, which presents another set of public-safety threats. Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn pulled the state out of the program in May. New York and Massachusetts quickly followed suit. This month, the feds told states they have no choice; that all law enforcement jurisdictions nationwide must participate by 2013.

Some attorneys at immigrant advocacy groups say they're trying working on a legal strategy for Illinois to cut ties to the program. They say they have the ear of the Quinn administration. A spokesman for Quinn says the governor's office is looking at the situation carefully but that it's too soon to discuss legal options.

At the same time, the federal Department of Homeland Security has formed a task force to help find ways to improve the Secure Communities program to keep it from damaging local law enforcement, though some immigrant advocates are calling it PR.

The task force is holding at least four hearings around the country. The third one was Wednesday night in in a downtown Chicago union hall. About 300 people packed in. The mic was open and most of the speakers said they opposed Secure Communities. Carolina is a Mexican-born mother whose kids are U.S. citizens. She asked us not to broadcast her last name because she's undocumented. So is her husband. She said Chicago police arrested him after a mixup over some broken car windows that landed him in deportation proceedings. He's got a one-way flight to Mexico out of O'Hare this morning.

"He's being deported," she said. "Do you really think that this program is working? How many more families have to suffer? Do you have children? Think of them? How would they feel if they were separated from you?"

A few minutes later most of the crowd at the hearing suddenly started yelling. It was an orchestrated protest. They stood up and followed some young undocumented activists out the door. Some of them then blocked an intersection and got arrested.

Back inside, a retired teacher said he was a brother of the victim in a hit-and-run collision that got some press coverage a couple months ago.

"I am here to report that my brother Dennis was killed by an illegal alien in the Logan Square neighborhood on June 6, 2011," said Brian McCann. "The offender hit him and then stepped on the gas, rolling over his body, and dragged him several blocks. The offender had recently completed two years' probation for another aggravated felony DUI."

McCann said he didn't know enough about the Secure Communities program to take a stand on it. But he said, at minimum, he wants immigration violators who are felons to be deported.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 18, 2011

Chicago Mayor Announces Foreclosure Stabilization Program

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Wednesday announced a new foreclosure initiative that relies on community groups to identify abandoned properties.

Standing in front of a rehabbed bungalow home in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, Emanuel laid out details for what the city calls the Micro-Market Recovery Program.

The MacArthur Foundation will provide up to $20 million in loans with the idea of leveraging millions more from the private sector. The goal is to collect a total pool of $50 million. The city will select neighborhood groups to find foreclosed properties. Those groups will use the funds to purchase and then rehab the homes, thus making them market-ready.

"It needs a comprehensive, integrated approach rather than home by home because the system is too big and too complicated for that alone. So we are targeting our resources, both public and private and nonprofit," Emanuel said.

The mayor said the program should get about 2,000 homes back on line within three to five years.

Housing and Economic Development Commissioner Andrew Mooney said local groups can purchase the foreclosed properties by using the pooled startup money.

"The idea is straight forward. If we're really going to address the problem, we have to focus on local markets rather than one building at a time. We need to target our resources to help stabilize values, regenerate market forces and reoccupy foreclosed properties," Mooney said.

The city will start the program in nine neighborhoods: Humboldt Park, Chatham, Chicago Lawn, West Woodlawn, Auburn Gresham, West Pullman, Belmont Cragin, Englewood and Grand Boulevard.

Stan Smith, president of the nonprofit New Pisgah Community Service Organization, was on hand for Mayor Emanuel's announcement. Smith said his group hired local construction workers to rehab the bungalow that hosted the mayor, his staff and the press.

Smith said he'd like to participate in the new foreclosure program because in the past he received federal dollars to do rehab work, but that work was only piecemeal.

"We need to do a whole area, capture an area to focus in on it so you don't end up doing one house here and you have 12 more abandoned houses on the block," Smith said.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 17, 2011

Lawsuit Seeks to Restart Process of Redistricting

The League of Women Voters of Illinois is asking a federal court to order a big change in the highly political, once-a-decade redistricting process. It's the latest suit tied to Illinois' new boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts.

The League last year tried to change how Illinois draws the boundaries, but its petition drive to get a proposal on the ballot came up short. Now the group is asking the courts to get involved.

In its lawsuit, the League claims its members' First Amendment rights were violated when Democratic leaders took into account party identification while drawing the maps. The lawsuit says this "unlawfully attempt[s] to control or influence the kinds of views, opinions and speech that residents placed in those districts are likely to express or hear or receive."

Illinois Republicans, who have a lot to lose if the Democratic-drawn maps stand, have also asked the courts to get involved.

But the League's lawsuit notes both parties have engaged in partisan gerrymandering in the past and wants the court to order a new process driven by "impartial" decision-makers.

But the League's president, Jan Dorner, acknowledged on that such a change may not be possible before next year's election.

Categories: Community, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 12, 2011

Settlement Could Lead to Big Park in Chicago for Mexican Neighborhood

The city of Chicago could be near the end of a five-year legal battle for control of a former industrial parcel with potential to help form a 24-acre park. If an eminent-domain settlement holds up, the space could be an asset for a Mexican-American area of the Southwest Side.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Sanjay T. Tailor this week signed off on the deal, under which the city will pay $7.5 million for 19 acres owned by 2600 Sacramento Corp.

The money will go to the Cook County Treasurer's Office and remain there as the company's owner, Joanne Urso, tries to settle with her lender, Texas-based United Central Bank, which last year filed a federal suit to foreclose on the property.

"I don't get a penny," Urso said Friday afternoon.

Urso's property would combine with a 5-acre plot the city already controls.

Activists in the Little Village neighborhood hailed the settlement.

"We have not seen any park development in over 75 years," said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

Wasserman's group has been pushing for the land to become a park for five years. She said the deal could inspire residents of other neighborhoods.

"Regardless of language and regardless of immigration status, as long as there is determination in these communities, we can continue to get the things that we need," she said.

The park concept has the backing of the local 12th Ward alderman, George Cárdenas.

The land was once the site of an asphalt and tar manufacturing facility. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the plant operated from about 1918 to 1982. The agency eventually declared the land a Superfund site. The contamination included cancer-linked chemicals that turned up in nearby homes and yards. An EPA statement says Honeywell International Inc. finished a site cleanup last year.

The city filed its eminent-domain suit in 2006. Reaching an agreement became more complicated last year, when the foreclosure proceedings began.

The payment, due September 7, will consist of $6 million from the Chicago Park District and more than $1.5 million from city general-obligation bonds, according to Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The time-frame for turning the land into a park is not clear. Ownership will transfer to Chicago upon payment, but the city is not specifying a date for transferring the acreage to the Park District. Hoyle said that could possibly happen later this year.

Categories: Community, Environment, Health

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 12, 2011

Sen. Durbin Touts Federal Funding for Food Assistance Programs

Illinois' Senior Senator says a Congressional 'super committee' tasked with finding $1.5 trillion dollars in federal savings over the next 10 years has their work cut out for them.

The bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which is made up of six Republicans and six Democrats, has until Thanksgiving to come up with a plan, and then sell it to the rest of Congress.

It's unclear where possible budget cuts may happen, but Democratic US Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said food assistance programs should be preserved.

During a visit Friday morning to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank in Urbana, Durbin underlined the importance of these services, saying food banks across the state have seen a 50 percent uptick in food assistance requests during the last couple of years. Durbin also pointed out that the Eastern Illinois Foodbank has increased food distribution by 24 percent during the same period.

"My hope is that as we look for ways to cut spending, and we don't do it at the expense of feeding children and families that are struggling," Durbin said. "I hope that we can all agree - both parties can agree - on a good starting point there to preserve the safety net."

The Eastern Illinois Foodbank said last year it gave out 6.8 million pounds of food, with federal commodities making up about a quarter of that stock from The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

"It's been a really important program for food banks during the recession," said Cheryl Precious, director of development at the Eastern Illinois Foodbank. "We're worried about it to say the least."

Precious said the Eastern Illinois Foodbank is anticipating a 50 percent reduction in federal commodities for this upcoming year.

"That's going to significantly impact us," Precious said. "We're going to have to make up that food by purchasing or increasing donations or we're just going to have to get creative about it."

Durbin also emphasized the importance of social safety net programs - like unemployment benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, and job re-training programs. He said he hopes the country's financial problems and the recent downgrade of the nation's credit rating by Standard and Poors serve as a wakeup call to the 12-lawmakers on the bipartisan deficit reduction committee.

"If they go in with a spirit of bipartisanship and compromise where both sides are willing to give, we can get this resolved," Durbin said. "If they walk into the door with preconceived notions and political positions that are non-negotiable, nothing is going to happen. It's going to fail."

Durbin wouldn't comment on specific programs that should be cut, but he said he would like to see tax breaks for the wealthiest people trimmed back.

"If there's no agreement, we go into automatic cuts in both the defense and veterans side of it, as well as the other non-defense spending," he said. "I don't believe we can rationalize cutting the safety net in America when so many working families life from pay check to paycheck, and many with a paycheck can't make ends meet."

Meanwhile, Illinois' other US senator, Republican Mark Kirk, weighed in on the Congressional committee's task ahead during a news conference Wednesday in Chicago. Kirk said he does not think there is consensus in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives for any tax hikes.

Congress is in recess until after Labor Day. Kirk said the joint commission should start meeting next Monday. He also urged President Obama to recall Congress to get to work on the nation's debt problems.

"Congress should not be in recess right now," Kirk said. "We see tremendous anxiety with the potential of the U.S. to go into recession and one of the greatest ways to restore confidence is, not to have a speech and not to lay out a set of vague principles, but to see the elected representatives of the American people working on entitlement reforms right away."

If the committee fails to meet its Thanksgiving deadline to come up with a plan, or if Congress rejects their proposal, then $1.2 trillion dollars in automatic budget cuts would go into effect. Critics are expressing doubt that the bipartisan panel will overcome its stark political differences.

(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 11, 2011

Villa Grove Cleans Up After Downtown Fire

The mayor of Villa Grove says the future of the Douglas County community's downtown remains a question mark after fire destroyed a 100-year old building Wednesday night.

Seventeen different departments fought the blaze, many of them staying throughout the night. There were no injuries. The State Fire Marshall is still investigating the cause. Villa Grove Mayor Thelma 'Boots' Blaney said the building was vacant, and most businesses on the north side of downtown, across Main Street, are open. But she said it will take some time for a local bar, beauty shop, and jewelry store to clean up from smoke and water damage.

Blaney said the firewall around the structures did its job, or the entire block would have been lost. She says those helping out overnight Wednesday motivated each other.

"The businesses just stepped up to the plate," she said. "We have pizzas and all kinds of drinks and ice. People were donating. Businesses were donating. You know, they all just stepped up to the plate, and the firefighters helped them keep going too."

Fire departments helping out included those from St. Joseph, Broadlands, Tuscola, Savoy, Philo, and Comargo.

"Right now, our main concern is getting it cleaned up and the safety of everyone, and trying to go from there," Blaney said. "I mean, it's just like everywhere else, you know, Villa Grove has been struggling. Lord knows what's going to hold up for the future."

Villa Grove Police say the buildings that were destroyed formerly housed the local Moose Lodge and a Chinese restaurant, but the structures had been empty for at least 10 years.

Categories: Business, Community, Economics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 04, 2011

Census Shows Increase in Same-Sex Households in Ill.

New U.S. Census Bureau figures show the number of Illinois households run by same-sex couples has jumped nearly 42 percent in the last decade.

That's from 22,887 in 2000 to 32,469 last year.

The trend in Illinois mirrors those nationwide. Experts and advocates say social attitudes toward same-sex couples are changing. Also, over the last decade Illinois has passed several laws for gay rights. Most recently, the state approved same-sex civil unions, which give gay couples many of the same rights as married couples.

The census data released late Wednesday shows a 53 percent jump in female couples since 2000.

In 2000, most of the couples were male - 12,155 compared with 10,732 female couples. But last year there were 16,416 female couples compared with 16,053 male couples.

Categories: Community

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 04, 2011

Illinois Notifies Seniors Eligible for Free Rides

Postcards are in the mail to Illinois low-income senior citizens eligible to ride free on public transit.

The Department on Aging announced Wednesday the postcards went to seniors enrolled in the Circuit Breaker program.

Those seniors remain eligible for free rides on public buses and trains.

Free rides are ending for other seniors, although they'll still get reduced fares. Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation in February to limit the "Seniors Ride Free" program to low-income seniors.

Seniors in the Circuit Breaker program may need to contact their local public transit agency for a free ride card.

To qualify for Circuit Breaker assistance, an applicant's total income for 2010 must be less than $27,610 for a household size of one.

(Photo courtesy of erekslater/Flickr)


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 02, 2011

National Night Out’ Expands in Champaign County

A nationwide effort to raise awareness about crime and drug prevention kicks off Tuesday night in Champaign.

The annual 'National Night Out' typically lasts for a day, but this year it is being broken up into more than a dozen events throughout the month.

"Historically it's just something that's happened in Champaign, and Urbana was doing their thing, and Savoy, and so it was just a real disjointed effort," Champaign Neighborhood Coordinator John Ruffin said. "Now it's a joint effort to really focus on making sure that Champaign remains a safe and healthy community."

For the first time, workshops led by the Champaign and Urbana Police Departments and the Champaign Fire Department will be offered. Chelsea Angelo, a safety education coordinator with the city of Urbana, said she hopes this expanded role by law enforcement officials helps bridge the gap between neighborhoods and police officers.

"We're always looking for ways to bring our officers into contact with the citizens that not involving strictly enforcement," Angelo said. "We don't want them to only see our officers when there is an emergency situation going on."

The 'National Night Out' kicks off Tuesday at 6pm at the Champaign City Hall. More information about other activities planned can be found on the city of Champaign's website.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 01, 2011

Quinn Signs Bill to Help Undocumented College Students

A college education will be more affordable for thousands of undocumented immigrants in Illinois.

Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday signed into law a bill that will set up privately funded college scholarships for children of immigrants, legal or not. The program's backers say it will be the nation's first state-created scholarship fund benefiting undocumented immigrants.

"[It's] certainly something that will get noticed around the country and in the Congress," said Margie McHugh of the Migration Policy Institute.

The Illinois measure could build support for a federal bill called the DREAM Act, according to McHugh. That bill, introduced in May by U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) would lay a path to citizenship for many undocumented students and military members who arrived in the country before age 16. Durbin has been pushing versions of this measure since 2001.

Opponents say helping out the young people rewards their parents for violating immigration laws.

Quinn signed the scholarships bill at Benito Juárez Community Academy, a mostly Mexican high school in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. He called the occasion a "landmark" day and told an auditorium of people that education is the key to opportunity in a democracy.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel attended the ceremony after announcing support for the measure in May. Lobbying led by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights helped push the bill through the Illinois Senate and House that month.

Under the measure, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission will create a nonprofit organization to manage the scholarship funds. High-school guidance counselors will receive training about the program. The immigrant families will also be able to join state-run college savings programs.

Illinois and several other states already provide undocumented students in-state tuition.

(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)


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