Illinois Latino Legislative Caucus member shares agenda - Housing, Medicaid expansion, and more
A member of the Illinois Latino legislative Caucus said issues of representation in state government persist, even as the state’s Latino population has grown significantly.
WNIJ spoke with State Senator Karina Villa, a Democrat from the 25th district, about the items on the Caucus’ agenda, including the low number of Latino employees in state agencies.
The Caucus advocates for resources and solutions to the concerns affecting the state’s Latino population. In addition, Villa said members help build trust between the Hispanic community and their government.
“I think for a long time, the Latino community didn't see themselves represented,” Villa said. “People who've been here for generations that have never been represented by a Latino, a Latina. And it's intimidating to walk into this office.”
“However,” she added, “now, you have a Latina face on the other side, who's saying ‘Come in, come talk to me, ‘⸮Como le puedo servir?’ And that removes barriers.”
Villa was born in West Chicago and is the daughter of immigrant parents. Formerly a school social worker, she’s tuned in to issues related to children and families.
She’s one of 16 Latino legislators in Springfield.
Villa said caucus members regularly prod agency directors about their efforts to diversity their staff. But she said, their responses are “abysmal.”
Latinos make up only seven percent of total state employees, according to a report from the Illinois Department of Central Management Services. That’s nowhere near a match with the state’s Latino population, which is at 18 percent of the whole.
She said part of the reason the state may not be attracting potential Latino employees is because the state’s online job portal is outdated, creating an obstacle to accessing job listings.
Also, she said the employees’ informal networks may keep Latinos from knowing about job opportunities.
“If you don't have a family member who works in those kinds of fields,” Villa said, “it, it's difficult to know that they should search to go work in these places.”
She said Latino legislators also probe about the accessibility of government documents in multiple languages. She says there’s far too many hoops that people must go through to apply for services or seek information.
Villa said the housing shortage is at a crisis, one that she said is a public health issue.
“One of the great things about our Latino families, that we are very resilient,” she said.
“However, that, sometimes that resiliency sometimes means that people are being put into very difficult situations, which means renting basements that are not inhabitable. But that's where . . . that's what they've got, or living, like I said earlier, with many people in one small room.”
According to an America’s Health Rankings analysis, in Illinois, nearly 25% of Latino households are dealing with severe housing problems, in contrast to 12% for white households and nearly 28% in Black households. Severe housing problems include one of or more housing challenges such as overcrowding and severely burdensome housing costs.
Several studies show that overcrowding and housing instability can negatively impact children’s well being.
She said conversations are ongoing to tackle this issue in Springfield, but adds local governments also play a huge role in this.
“When you have someone who's leading your local development in town,” Villa said, “and they are looking at the dollars more than they're looking at the interests of the hard-working people in the community, I think that that's a problem.”
She said West Chicago, like similar communities outside of Chicago, is attracting manufacturing companies, which increases the demand for workers and for affordable housing. She said local officials are not prioritizing affordable housing development to meet the need.
“We don't need to continue to build only million-dollar houses,” Villa said. “We also need housing that is going to be attainable for the workers.”
She said the caucus agenda also includes economic justice for Latino workers and businesses and educational funding for early childhood and college.
Villa said the state’s expansion of Medicaid to qualifying adults 42 and up regardless of immigration status was huge, but she said more needs to be done. She said the caucus advocates for further expansion to younger adults regardless of immigration status, and coverage for rehabilitation and long-term care for seniors.
“The people who need this care, have contributed to the society, have worked here, have paid their taxes and now they're in need,” Villa said. “We need to find a way to provide this because they've earned it.”
Medicaid for undocumented people is not reimbursed at the federal level, and so funded completely by the state.
“We're happy to be fighting the battle here in Illinois,” she said. “But the federal government needs to step it up as well.”
Efforts to provide support and protection for undocumented people at the federal level have made little progress. The latest example was the failure of Congress in December to pass immigration reform.
In the meantime, Villa said, she, along with the rest of the caucus and their allies in the General Assembly, will take the lead.