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State Rep. Lisa Hernandez, chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, speaks during a news conference on April 18 in Chicago. Hernandez, D-Cicero, said she is looking at state legislation granting work permits to undocumented immigrants.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chair of Illinois Democratic Party floats state law granting work permits to immigrants

Rep. Lisa Hernandez declined to give a timeline on any proposal, which she says could authorize more than 400,000 undocumented immigrants to work.

Illinois State Rep. Lisa Hernandez, D-Cicero, said she is exploring state legislation that could grant work permits to all unauthorized immigrant workers in Illinois. That would include the thousands of migrants who have arrived in Illinois over the last two years, and an estimated 400,000-plus longtime undocumented immigrant workers.

Hernandez spoke at a press conference Friday, championing a recent state resolution urging President Joe Biden to use his executive power to grant work permits to all immigrants.

But a resolution is not binding. After the press conference with business leaders, advocates and other elected officials, Hernandez told WBEZ she is looking to explore other avenues.

“We may have passed a resolution …., but it doesn’t mean that we’re going to rest. We will continue to do what we can to push.” said Hernandez who is chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois.

Any state proposal on work permit legislation for immigrants is expected to be an uphill battle because federal immigration law regulates work permits for non-U.S. citizens, experts say. But Hernandez said she is willing to test the limits of what authority states have in granting work permits.

“I have never taken a step back, that just because immigration is a federal issue, that we should not do what we have to do at a state level.” Rep. Hernandez said, adding that she is paying close attention to Utah, where state lawmakers filed a measure to enhance work permit options for immigrants.

Hernandez didn’t have a timeline on any potential state legislation.

The increasing number of migrants in cities like Chicago have amplified the call for federal action on immigrant work permits. Newly arrived migrants tell WBEZ what they need most is the right to legally work. But advocates say their calls for Biden to expand a work authorization program have fallen on deaf ears, and they say his recent executive action limiting asylum claims at the U.S-Mexico border is a step backward.

In recent years the Biden administration authorized a few programs to allow some eligible asylum seekers – from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua – to live and work temporarily in the U.S. in response to the rapid surge of migrants trekking to the U.S. But thousands of new arrivals didn’t qualify for these programs. Many advocates want solutions that include long time undocumented immigrants as well as recently arrived asylum seekers.

Speaking at Friday’s press conference, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza said not allowing recently arrived migrants and long-time immigrants to work causes an unnecessary drain on state finances.

“If we don’t let them work, then we have to provide social services that are very costly. We have to provide stipends, we have to provide housing, and it creates conflict within our own communities, and it does nothing to strengthen the economy,” said Mendoza. “It makes much more sense for these asylum seekers and our immigrants to pay into the tax base through gainful employment and gainful employment of their choice.”

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers immigration for WBEZ. Follow her on X @AdrianaCardMag.

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