Editors’ note: Injustice Watch and The Chicago Tribune teamed up to report on the challenges facing Illinois’ aging undocumented population. This is the last installment in a four-part series focused on access to health care and housing. Read the first three parts here.
This story was updated on April 9 with information about the bills that passed in the final day of the Illinois General Assembly’s spring session.
Long ago, Veronica Ortega gave up hope that federal immigration reform would come and pave a path to citizenship for her and her husband.
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Ortega, 51, immigrated to the Chicago area from Mexico more than two decades ago with her husband, Alfonso Vazquez, and their children, Janeth and Omar. In 2012, her children gained deportation protections and work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
But she and her husband have no such protections. They both work at factories in the western suburbs and collectively clock more than 100 hours a week. The couple shares a single-story corner ranch house in Maywood with their daughter and son-in-law. Despite paying taxes that help fund programs such as Medicare and Social Security, Ortega and Vazquez know that they’ll never be able to access their benefits, and they doubt federal lawmakers will do anything to improve their situation.
“To be honest, I’ve never been hopeful that there would be immigration reform to help us. Every time it is mentioned, I remind myself that it’s all politics — that they use us to promote their agenda but never intend to really help us,” she said in Spanish.
Many immigrant rights groups hoped that with a Democrat-controlled Congress — albeit by the smallest of margins — President Joe Biden would deliver comprehensive immigration reform in his first term. But those hopes, too, have faded.
In the meantime, undocumented immigrants like Ortega and her husband are aging in place without the promise of a social safety net to catch them. Immigrant rights activists say it’s up to state and local lawmakers to protect them from becoming destitute in their old age.
Illinois is home to nearly 200,000 undocumented immigrants age 35 to 54, according to census data analyzed by the Migration Policy Institute. Nationwide, about 1 million undocumented immigrants will turn 65 by 2030, and by 2040, that number will more than double if Congress doesn’t provide them with a viable pathway to citizenship, according to a recent article in the Journals of Gerontology.
That means every year over the next few decades, thousands more undocumented seniors will be working to the bone without being able to retire; in desperate need of immediate and long-term health care; and frantically searching for safe affordable housing.
Advocates say Illinois lawmakers should build state-funded welfare programs for undocumented seniors that mirror those already in place for citizens, like food stamps and unemployment insurance. Illinois has taken a similar approach with a new health care program for low-income immigrant adults who don’t qualify for traditional Medicaid.
Lawmakers should also provide more funding to community groups and legal aid organizations to service undocumented seniors and ensure that all locally-funded social programs are explicitly open to them, advocates say.
Doing so won’t come cheap, and would likely elicit an immediate backlash from Republicans and conservative Democrats, policy experts said.
But ignoring the plight of undocumented seniors would be a moral failure, said State Rep. Delia Ramirez, a Democrat representing Chicago’s West Side and the most vocal champion for undocumented seniors in Springfield. “We call ourselves one of the most welcoming states for immigrants in the country, and being able to cover undocumented seniors’ basic needs should be necessary for us to call ourselves that,” she said.
Is help coming from Springfield?
As the spring legislative session wrapped up in Springfield this week, state lawmakers considered new legislation that would provide tangible benefits for undocumented older adults — but advocates say that the state could go even further.
The most comprehensive bill that passed was an expansion of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit. Currently, the program benefits only residents who get a federal income tax credit — low-income earners with a Social Security number and dependents. The expansion includes filers age 65 and older regardless of whether they have an income or dependents. It would also include undocumented immigrants who file taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number.
Immigrant rights advocates pushed state legislators to expand the Immigrant Family Support Program — but came up short. Launched in 2020, the program provides one-time cash grants of up to $2,000 to low-income undocumented immigrants and their families who didn’t qualify for federal COVID-19 assistance.
The program has already distributed over $36 million to more than 20,000 immigrant families. Nearly 700 households whose principal applicant was at least 60 years old received grants through the program, according to Brandon Lee, spokesperson for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
ICIRR, which distributes the state funds through its coalition partners, asked the state for another $32.5 million to distribute in the 2023 fiscal year as part of a larger package known as the Immigrant Services Line. But state legislators only gave $38 million for the entire service line, well below the $53 million advocates had asked for.
But advocates successfully got lawmakers to expand the Illinois Access to Justice program. The program began in 2020 and provides funding for legal aid groups to represent immigrants in deportation proceedings or who are trying to legalize their status but can’t afford an attorney. About $14 million has already been allocated for the program and lawmakers allocated another $20 million for the next fiscal year.
So far, the program has funded more than 4,800 legal screenings and about 1,900 open cases, according to Erendira Rendon, vice president for immigrant advocacy at The Resurrection Project, a nonprofit based in Pilsen that manages most of the program’s funds directed toward immigration relief.
Illinois’ new health care program for undocumented seniors leaves some of the most vulnerable behind
Rendon said many undocumented people in Illinois struggle to fix their status because of the high costs of hiring an attorney and going through the process. But lawmakers should make as many state and local programs available even to those who can’t, she said.
“We need the city, the state, the county to be thinking about how do we remove immigration status as a barrier to our programs that we have,” she said. “And then how do we make sure that undocumented immigrants have the legal representation that they need?’’
State legislators also expanded Medicaid-like healthcare coverage to low-income adults ages 42 to 54 regardless of their immigration status under the Health Benefits for Immigrant Adults program. The program, which began in late 2020, already covers low-income undocumented immigrants 55 and older.
“We have affirmed healthcare as a human right to thousands of low-income people who would have no other options to access affordable healthcare,” Ramirez said in a statement.
But advocates said state and local governments could go even further to protect undocumented seniors.
Trinh Phan, a senior staff attorney at Justice in Aging, a national advocacy organization based in Oakland, California, working to end senior poverty, said one major need is food security.
Adults without a Social Security number don’t qualify for state and federal food stamp programs. Phan said Illinois could emulate what’s been done in California, where the state’s university system developed a grant fund for students who don’t qualify for traditional food stamps. Lawmakers there are also developing a food aid program for undocumented adults throughout the state.
Another idea is for Illinois to create an unemployment insurance fund for undocumented workers, who can’t claim traditional jobless benefits or disability insurance. New York lawmakers are currently debating a similar proposal.
Illinois lawmakers should also seek to replicate Social Security benefits for undocumented seniors, advocates say. One idea is to create a universal basic income program that would provide the seniors with a monthly stipend for rent, utilities and other necessities, said ICIRR’s senior policy counsel, Fred Tsao.
“Folks should have some level of basic support, regardless of their status, regardless of where they’re from, regardless of who they are,” Tsao said. “It’s a matter of basic sustenance.”
Both Chicago and Cook County are rolling out universal basic income pilot programs, with Chicago opening applications in April for up to 5,000 recipients regardless of their immigration status. Details on eligibility and enrollment for Cook County’s program have yet to be released. Both programs promise to be two of the largest universal basic income programs in the country, but they would cover only a small fraction of low-income residents.
Weaving a social safety net for undocumented seniors at the state level is critical, but it doesn’t make up for the lack of federal action on immigration reform, advocates say.
And while some members of Congress promise to provide more relief for young undocumented immigrants — called “Dreamers” — advocates say they shouldn’t leave undocumented seniors behind.
Glo Choi, 30, the son of an elderly Korean couple who had arrived in the Chicago area in 1996 and eventually overstayed their visas, became a community organizer after living in the shadows and being frustrated for many years.
“These are the very experiences that I felt of isolation of hopelessness, of just living every day to forget about my problems, because they’re too seemingly insurmountable,” Choi said. “These kinds of feelings were drowning me for a really long time.”
Choi found purpose and peace at HANA Center, an Albany Park organization that serves the Korean American and multiethnic immigrant communities through various social services — after his mother learned about it through the church they attended.
Now Choi serves as the director of immigration, housing and legal services for the organization. He said he is doing the work with his parents in mind.
His mother is now 67 and his father is 65. Initially they tried to adjust their status, Choi said, but “it was really tough. A lot of broken promises were made to my family.”
Eventually they gave up, but in 2012, when he became a community organizer, Choi also pledged to help people like his parents find some comfort and peace. Even though one in seven Asian community members are undocumented in the Chicago area, few are open about it, fearing prejudice and avoiding unwanted attention, Choi said.
His parents are among them. They prefer to work quietly and often don’t ask or can’t find help, he said.
Choi tries to encourage his parents to stay positive, as he does with the community members he works with. During his outreach, he reminds them of their value and importance in the country and in the movement to a dignified life regardless of their immigration status.
“The role that we play in the community is understanding the breadth of the experiences, so we could make a change. And I think that’s what drives me, that change is possible,” he said. “That change can only come with our input, with us holding our legislators accountable, by letting them know that this is the experience of their constituents, whether it’s right here in our county, or our state, or our federal districts, that this is a reality.”