Two newly elected officials, Cook County State's Attorney Kimberly Foxx and Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, addressed JUF's Government Affairs Committee at a Feb. 13 meeting, which also included updates on refugee resettlement efforts by JUF's Deborah Covington and JCFS/HIAS Chicago's Jessica Schaffer.
Foxx, the first African-American woman to head the state's attorney's office, spoke about her work to transform the criminal justice system in the middle of deepening instability. "So far, the 2017 homicide rate is outpacing the 2016 rate," she said. "We are also seeing an increase in hate crimes against those who are foreign born and who have different faiths. Immigrants are afraid to come to the justice system, which is making our job much harder."
When asked what the Jewish community could to do to address the increasing rate of gun violence, Foxx said "the increase in gun violence is a public health crisis, and we need more programs that deal with prevention, as well as specialized programs targeting children and adolescents who have been the victims of or witnesses to violence." This challenge, she explained, is further complicated by the state's budget impasse, as "current programs are closing for lack of funds."
Mendoza, the first Latino elected to statewide office in Illinois, also spoke about the impact of the state budget crisis, which she saw as "directly leading to increased violence in Chicago because of the closing of social service agencies that aren't getting paid. We need a state budget."
Mendoza gave additional examples of how the budget crisis is impacting the state, including high interest payments on delayed bills, which she projects will be at $700 million by July, and the reluctance of doctors, dentists and other health care professionals to accept state group health insurance because of the $4 billion backlog in reimbursement.
The topic of refugee resettlement was added to the program in response to the Executive Order on Immigrants and Refugees signed on Jan. 27.
"One of the Government Affairs Committee's goals is to share information back to our community on policy changes or developments that directly impact our work," said Committee Chair David Golder. "Today we are fortunate to be joined by two local experts who can help us make sense of the recent Executive Order and how our local programs have been responding."
The JUF/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and HIAS-Chicago have a long history of resettling refugees. In 1975, Jewish Federation became the administrator of the Illinois Refugee Social Service Consortium, which includes Catholic Charities, Heartland Alliance, Refugee One, JCFS-HIAS, World Relief, and the Iraqi Mutual Aid Association. These organizations have helped resettle more than 125,000 refugees throughout the state, with the majority settling in the Chicago metropolitan area.
Deborah Covington, vice president for planning and allocations at JUF, who has worked on refugee issues for nearly 28 years, summarized several of the important features of the Executive Order. These included freezing the refugee resettlement program for 120 days, stopping all visas from seven countries with majority Muslim populations for 90 days, banning all Syrians from entry indefinitely, and reducing the annual refugee admission rate from 110,000 to 50,000.
Covington went on to discuss the 9th District Federal Court ruling against the Executive Order, which put an indefinite hold on these provisions. However, it was expected that a new Executive Order would be drawn up to meet some of the legal objections and/or that the president will instruct the Justice Department to file an appeal. The reduction in the annual refugee admission rate still stands.
HIAS Chicago has resettled refugees for a century, and recently expanded its program to work with some of the largest and most vulnerable groups. To support the extended program, HIAS has been reaching out to Chicago-area congregations to co-sponsor refugee families. Three synagogues have welcomed four groups to date, with three other synagogues in the process of preparing for co-sponsorship.
"We were devastated when the Executive Order was signed," said Jessica Schaffer, HIAS Chicago's executive director. "The most immediate effect was on the arrival of two Congolese sisters due to travel on Jan. 31. Fortunately, the State Department negotiated the admission of just over 850 refugees post Executive Order. Now we are anxiously awaiting the arrival of eight more families."