More and more people are taking advantage of their area state parks for camping, fishing and other recreation. In fact, nearly 2,000,000 people a year pass through two state parks along Route 150. Yet the agency charged with running them has seen significant budget cuts in the past decade. In this installment of our "Life on Route 150" series, Illinois Public Media's Tom Rogers visited the parks and took a snapshot of their health.
Faced with losing the life they've built together in the dusty California desert town of Cathedral City, Doug Gentry and Alex Benshimol are making a last-ditch effort to stave off the looming threat of deportation.
To a large degree, the couple is stuck. While the American information technology consultant and Venezuelan pet groomer wed at a romantic Connecticut ceremony last year, the federal government won't recognize the marriage between the two men - and as a result, won't approve their application for a green card.
But the couple, and others facing a similar predicament, are still trying. The men don't expect to actually obtain a green card any time soon and have already been shot down once but hope filing an application might convince an immigration judge to at least refrain from deporting Benshimol while the fiery legal debate over the country's same-sex marriage laws simmers.
"There have been so many ups and downs on this roller coaster. I really don't know what to expect," said Gentry, 53. "It can't hurt (to refile). All they can do is deny it again."
For years, immigration attorneys warned gay couples not to bother seeking a green card for their foreign spouses since there was no chance they'd get one. Now, in select cases, they're starting to rethink that advice.
In the wake of the federal government's announcement that it will no longer defend a law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman and a court ruling raising questions about the law, some immigrant advocates have suggested that gay couples fighting deportation apply for a green card in a final effort to stay in the country.
Most couples, advocates say, should refrain from doing so to avoid drawing attention to their predicament if the foreign spouse is here illegally, and to avoid forking over cash for a benefit they won't get anytime soon if here on a legal visa.
But the small group of couples already facing deportation has little to lose by applying, and might see some gain.
In March, an immigration judge in New York halted deportation proceedings involving a lesbian couple until December. Last month, an immigration judge in New Jersey did the same for a Venezuelan salsa dancer married to an American graduate student after Attorney General Eric Holder asked an immigration appeals court to review another case involving a same-sex couple.
In a memo posted to its web site in March, the American Immigration Lawyers Association suggested that couples facing deportation consider filing for a green card in the hopes that it might win sympathy from an immigration judge willing to put the case on hold or bolster the immigrant spouse's case for an asylum petition.
"We are advising more people to do it - at least in the context of if the foreign partner, the foreign spouse is in deportation proceedings," said Victoria Neilson, legal director of Immigration Equality, an immigrant rights group focused on the gay and lesbian community. "At this point there is more of a feeling that the tide is turning on marriage in this country and it could be something that could be helpful."
U.S. immigration authorities are denying green cards for same-sex couples because the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act specifies that marriage is between a man and a woman, said Chris Bentley, spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services. As of March, the agency had 10 or 20 such petitions pending, he said.
There are roughly 26,000 bi-national same-sex couples in the United States where one partner is a U.S. citizen. There's no estimate on how many have legally married, said Gary Gates, a UCLA professor and co-author of the Gay and Lesbian Atlas.
It's impossible to know how many couples filed green card petitions before last year, immigration authorities said.
Lavi Soloway, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles, said he started encouraging some clients to apply last year after a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled the 1996 Act is unconstitutional because it interferes with a state's right to define marriage. Soloway saw further encouragement this year when Holder said the executive branch would no longer defend the Act as constitutional and the immigration agency temporarily held off making a decision on same sex couples' cases.
"The forum in which we're testing the issue is immigration court," said Soloway, who represents a dozen couples including Gentry and Benshimol. "It is the best possible place for this discussion to be taking place because it involves parties that have broad discretion to address just the kinds of concerns we're talking about."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement - which is responsible for carrying out deportations - said the agency will continue to enforce the law unless it is repealed by Congress or shot down by the courts.
The issue has enflamed passions on both sides of the debate over gay marriage.
It has also raised questions for those seeking stricter limits on immigration. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said judges can exercise discretion on individual cases but shouldn't use that power to enact sweeping policy changes.
"They are in effect legislating and it's not their job. It's Congress' job," Krikorian said.
Benshimol came to the country 12 years ago and overstayed his tourist visa -an immigration violation that straight couples can remedy once married. Now, he says he can't safely return to Venezuela as an openly gay man and also can't stand the thought of being separated from his husband, or of forcing Gentry to leave behind his adult son and daughter who live in California.
Even so, Gentry and Benshimol say they are hopeful, simply because they have no other choice.
"You just never know. The analytical side of my head says, you know, DOMA exists and it's the law and they're going to deny it," Gentry said. "But then the hopeful side of your brain says, you know, there's a chance."
A survey on the greatest health needs in Champaign County has been broken down into four general areas.
The state requires the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District to complete a local assessment of needs plan every five years. After more than 11-hundred replies last year, priorities were identified as access to care (or paying for medical, mental and dental health), accidents (including DUI crashes and those in the home), obesity, and violence (including alcohol-related abuse and domestic violence.)
CUPHD Epidemiologist Awais Vaid says the county's current Community Health Plan was narrowed from 10 categories five years ago. He says public health is given no specific guidance on how to come up with the priorities.
"It's basically the community partners, the community leaders that get together and decide one what should be included," said Vaid. "But the last time we identified 10 of them, it became too much to address each of them, because each takes time and resources."
Vaid says community coalitions are being put together to address the four areas, each of them involving members of the public health district.
"The last time we finished the process, and thought as time goes by, some group will start addressing each one of these. It didn't happen," said Vaid. "So most of them were not addressed the way we were expecting to. But this time we do have specific groups that have a vested interest."
Yearly progress on the surveyed areas will be posted on the CUPHD's website.
It's been six weeks since a Champaign County judge ordered the closure of an apartment complex between Rantoul and Thomasboro.
But public health officials say people continue to live there. Indeed, as of Thursday, there were several cars parked in front of a far east building, which had a new dumpster nearby and kids playing in the yard.
The first collection buildings in the complex, known as Cherry Orchard, looks empty from the main highway - County Road 1500 East. There appears to be no cars and no people.
In April, a Champaign County judge fined its managers, Bernard and Eduardo Ramos, more than $54,000 and ordered them to close down the property following a nearly four-year-old Champaign County Public Health Department case.
New painted words "For Sale" have replaced "Cherry Orchard" on a large, weathered wood sign. New phone numbers with the 202 area code have appeared. The property is listed for $1.3 million on this website. There is no longer a "for rent" sign.
The main entrance is blocked by an old telephone pole propping up a door turned on its side decorated by the word "Closed" in spray-paint. An electrical cord of some type serves as a make-shift rope between two trees that flank the main entrance.
By all appearances, from the corner of county roads 1500 East and 2700 North, the 11-acre, 68-unit apartment complex looks to be in compliance with the April court order.
A woman answered a call to one of the phone numbers listed on the sign, but pleasantly declined to give her name and said she would only discuss the details of the complex and its selling price with serious buyers. She said the complex was "empty, completely empty."
The Ramoses were accused of failing to legally connect sewer and septic systems for six of their eight apartment buildings on the property. The apartment complex has traditionally housed many migrant workers.
The Health Department had sought to stop the Ramoses from renting out the property until the septic system could be legally fixed.
Bernard and Eduardo Ramos have repeatedly declined to comment for any news stories about the complex - including not returning calls seeking comment and posting signs warning "media dogs" to stay away. After April's ruling, the pair flashed a sign at reporters that read "slander- lying" as they left the courtroom.
The Ramos incurred more legal troubles when they failed to show up for a status hearing in May, after reports that the complex had yet to be closed and tenants remained. They notified the state's attorney's office prior to the hearing to report that they were on an extended trip to Texas.
At the May hearing, Judge John Kennedy issued a civil contempt warrant and a criminal contempt warrant for both Bernard Ramos and his father, Eduardo. The arrest warrants each include a $10,000 bond. If arrested, the judge requires that the Ramoses post the full amount - a total of $20,000 each - rather than the typical 10 percent before they can be released.
Soon after, the complex appeared to have been closed down.
But health officials who regularly spot-check the complex have found people living there, and neighbors have reported to health officials that men are working on apartments during the day as well and that residents remain in the buildings.
A visit to the area on Thursday morning showed the same.
While the main entrance to the complex is closed, a second driveway - accessible further down County Road 2700 North - leads right to the far east building (noted as number 5 on the map below).
There appeared to be a work van and four or five cars parked in front of the complex.
There were also children playing out front.
Neighbors have also reported that new air conditioners have been installed in the windows and a new dumpster was placed nearby.
Health Department officials do not have the authority to physically remove anyone from the complex; however, they remain concerned about the safety and health of residents who continue to live there due to the conditions of the complex.
Health officials are also concerned that the Ramoses are preparing the place for additional tenants - migrant workers who typically move to the area during this time of year, said Public Health Administrator Julie Pryde.
As of Friday, Bernard and Eduardo Ramos have yet to be arrested on the outstanding warrants for contempt of court.
The County Board of Health plans to meet next week with officials from the county to see what options they can legally pursue to ensure that the apartment complex is vacated and the illegal discharge of sewage ends, Pryde said.
(Photo by A. H. Gorton of CU-CitizenAccess)
Recent Photos Taken of the Cherry Orchard Apartment Complex:
School lunches and breakfasts are sometimes a lifeline for children whose families face problems affording healthy food. School officials understand that and are extending school meal programs into the summer.
Starting Monday, Champaign Unit 4 food service crews will bring breakfasts and lunches to four community centers - they'll be available free to children under age 18.
Unit 4 food service director Mary Davis says the federally-funded program is there to fill the gap when school lets out and children on free or reduced-price lunches still need food.
"Especially now where jobs are hard to find and so money isn't coming into a household like it was, this is going to help all those households," Davis said. "It'll take a worry off their mind because it's both breakfast and lunch. So it does help."
Davis said people at the sites won't ask for proof of need. She said she expects the nine sites across the Champaign area will give out about a thousand breakfasts and up to two thousand school lunches every weekday through the end of July.
Six of those sites are open to anyone - the sites at the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club (201 E. Park Ave.), First Presbyterian Church (302 W. Church), Douglass Community Center (512 E. Grove) and Jericho Church (1601 W. Bloomington Rd.)open Monday. Sites at Carrie Busey and Stratton schools open June 13th.
On Friday, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin is expected to visit another school meal program funded by the Department of Agriculture. Decatur's Boys and Girls Club is one of several sites in that city where the Summer Food Service Program is also taking place.
Couples entering into civil unions under the new law that took effect in Illinois Wednesday may want the event published in the newspaper.
The Champaign News-Gazette is now ready to publish their announcement --- at the same rate it charges for engagement and wedding announcements. Previously, the News-Gazette would not publish announcements from same-sex couples, but Managing Editor Dan Corkery said the newspaper decided to to change that policy, now that civil unions are part of state law.
"There are definitely people --- some of our readers, loyal readers --- who this is going to rub the wrong way," Corkery said. "And on the other hand, had we not published civil union announcements, there would have been people who would have upset about that as well, whether they were personally affected or not, just out of a sense of fairness."
Corkery notes that civil unions in Illinois are open to both same-sex and opposite sex couples, and the News-Gazette will run announcements for both. But he said Illinois civil unions are the only announcements they will publish for same-sex couples, unless the event rises to the level of a news story.
Announcements of extralegal commitment ceremonies, and same-sex civil unions and marriages performed outside Illinois will not be accepted.
Meanwhile, another Champaign-Urbana media outlet, the online publication "Smile Politely," said it will now run same-sex couple announcements free of charge --- for civil unions, but also for weddings, anniversaries and births or adoptions.
Just hours after Illinois lawmakers adjourned late last night, hundreds of same-sex couples across the state stood in line Wednesday morning to get a civil union license.
Illinois is the sixth state in the United States to allow for some form of civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.
For many people, like Michael Hogue of Champaign, the civil union law is a long time coming. Hogue has been with partner, Bruce Rainey, for 22 years, and they were one of the first couples to get a license Wednesday at the Champaign County Brookens Center in Urbana.
"I think we procrastinated a little, getting everything ready for this day because in the back of our minds we didn't think it would come," Rainey said. "It's astounding that we can actually be recognized for our commitment to one another and for the years that we've been together."
But not every same-sex couple who came to Brookens showed up to get a civil union license. Susan Chapman and Lori Serb say while the law marks an important landmark for gay and lesbian couples, they say there are still other goals that need to be met.
"I think it's important not to let our focus as a community get so narrow because we think this is the end goal for everyone, " Chapman said. "I think there are a lot more things that we need to continue to work on in terms of protecting people who are outside of gender norms and equal housing."
Similar to getting a marriage license, couples must have a valid form of ID and be ready to answer some basic questions. The licenses require a one-day waiting period, and are then valid for 60 days. The group Equality Illinois says every state agency is required to comply with the law, but it says churches can opt out of conducting civil unions if they choose.
Rev. Keith Harris of McKinley Memorial Presbyterian Church in Champaign said he will be performing civil union ceremonies because "we understand that God sees it that way." But Harris said he won't perform any civil union ceremonies unless couples participate in up to five sessions of counseling, either at his church or somewhere else.
"We're not just contributing to the rate of broken relationships," Harris said.
The new law gives people many significant legal protections that accompany traditional marriage. That includes the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner and the right to inherit a partner's property. In order to share insurance benefits, couples must also obtain a separate document from the county clerk proving the ceremony happened.
State Representative Greg Harris (D-Chicago), who sponsored the civil union legislation, is credited with shepherding it through the General Assembly.
"I know all kinds of couples personally," Harris said. "There are people across the state who've invited me to their ceremonies to say thanks for helping get the bill passed. I will go broke buying toasters and punch sets, I believe, if I go to all these events."
Speaking to reporters Wednesday morning, Gov. Pat Quinn praised the start of civil unions in Illinois. The Illinois Democrat signed the legislation in January. He said the law makes Illinois "a place of tolerance and welcoming to all.''
The children of immigrants, both legal and illegal, would be able to obtain private college scholarships and enroll in Illinois state savings programs under legislation approved Monday.
A 61-53 vote in the Illinois House sent the measure to Gov. Pat Quinn's desk because it already passed the state Senate. Quinn said in a statement that he looked forward to signing it.
Supporters praised the legislation as a much-needed way to offer financial help to undocumented immigrants who graduate from Illinois high schools and want to continue their studies in college but can't afford it.
The Illinois Dream Act would create a panel to raise private money for college scholarships and let the children of immigrants join programs that help them invest money and save for college.
"These students deserve an opportunity. They work hard. We send them through grade school, we send them through high school, then we slam a door in their face and say `Oh well, all the hard work is for nothing. You can't go to college,"' said state Rep. Edward Acevedo, D-Chicago.
To qualify for the college savings pool, students must have a Social Security number or taxpayer identification number. Scholarship recipients must have at least one immigrant parent and the student must have attended school in Illinois for at least three years.
Carla Navoa, a 22-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Chicago who is in the country illegally, lobbied for the bill because it will help others like her pay for college. She said she currently isn't enrolled in college because of the financial stress on her family with a younger sister in college, too.
"Having access to this Dream Fund would really help us," Navoa said.
Opponents have criticized the legislation as improper because it provides benefits that could help people who violate immigration laws. They also have complained it's confusing because of proposed federal legislation by the same name that would give some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
The Illinois Dream Act has no impact on a person's immigration status and it doesn't offer a path to citizenship.
Lawmakers in Springfield have passed legislation to expand access to higher education for undocumented immigrants. It now heads to Gov. Pat Quinn, who has said he would sign the measure into law. As Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers reports, this isn't the first time the state has considered how far it should go to accommodate people who have come to this country illegally.
Same-sex couples in Illinois can start obtaining civil union licenses Wednesday, June 1.
The Champaign County Clerk's office says it will be fully staffed to issue the licenses, which will cost four dollars. Kevin Johnson of the Up Center of Champaign County said he is planning a large gathering at the clerk's office when the civil union law goes into effect.
"You know, a lot of people feel it's not truly equal because it is not marriage," Johnson said. "However, for many of us, it is the first step of being recognized by the government as couples."
Couples are required to get the license from the county clerk's office in the area where the ceremony takes place. Both people in a relationship have to show up to get the license. Johnson estimates anywhere between 20-to-30 people will immediately get the licenses in Champaign County on Wednesday.
Similar to getting a marriage license, couples must have a valid form of ID and be ready to answer basic questions like parent's names. Couples are encouraged to call their county clerk's office if they have questions about civil unions. They cannot take part in a ceremony until the day after the license is issued. They also have 60 days to use that license or it expires.
Kathie Spegal, 67, of Champaign has been with her partner, Lynn Sprout, since 2002, and she said she never thought she would live to see the day when civil unions would be legal in Illinois.
"It's not going to change how we live," Spegal said. "We still pay taxes. We still do everything that we've always done. It's just that we know how that it's all legal."
Spegal said her civil union ceremony will take place at McKinley Memorial Presbyterian Church, where he exchanged vows with her partner as part of a "holy union" in 2004.
But churches can opt out of performing civil unions, according to Bernard Cherkasov, president of the group Equality Illinois.
"No religious institution will be required to officiate or perform civil unions," Cherkasov explained. "But every agency performing state functions - accepting public funds to perform that function - will be required to comply with all existing laws and statutes, including respecting the civil unions law."
Civil unions share many of the rights that accompany traditional marriage, including the power to make medical decisions for a partner and being able to share insurance policies. In order to get insurance benefits, a couple must obtain a separate document from the county clerk proving the civil union happened.
When the law takes effect, Illinois will become the sixth state in the United States to allow for some form of civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.