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Welcoming Center aids immigrants and non-native English speakers in Peoria, regardless of documentation status

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Sergio Nathanael
The Western Illinois Dreamers, or WID for short, looks for ways to support immigrant families by educating them on their rights and giving them relevant information about their communities. Above, WID's president, staff and volunteers are seen with Ruth Lopez McCarthy, senior immigration fellow with the Illinois Governor's Office, at Sunday's community listening session.

Illinois is seeing a growing population of immigrants, many of whom are living in the Chicago-area where community support exists for incoming migrants and non-native English speakers. The Illinois Immigration Council reported in 2016 that 400,000 undocumented immigrants made up 22% of the immigrant population and 3% of the total state population.

Though, when immigrant populations decide to migrate south of Chicago to more rural communities like Peoria, oftentimes, resources are limited or nonexistent. Finding access to health care, insurance, schools and more is a challenge for people who are non-native English speakers. This is especially difficult and risky for people without legal documentation.

That’s where the Western Illinois Dreamers, or WID for short, comes in. The WID is opening a Welcoming Center in Peoria to support Peoria’s growing immigrant population.

WID looks for ways to support immigrant families by educating them on their rights and giving them relevant information about their communities. This includes giving them legal immigration services. The agency helps people with immigrant backgrounds regardless of nation of origin and regardless of legal documentation status.

Julia Albarracin-Green is the president and CEO of WID.

Albarracin-Green said when she moved to the United States from Argentina for her dissertation, she didn’t expect to find small towns with large LatinX populations. She discovered Beardstown and Monmouth had growing LatinX populations, and she did research and explored why immigrants were arriving to these parts of Illinois.

Albarracin-Green is the author of At the Core and in the Margins: Incorporation of Mexican Immigrants in Two Rural Midwestern Communities where she uncovers what it’s like for Latinos and immigrants to live in communities south of Chicago with few resources.

“I did my research over the years, and when I got to the communities in Beardstown and Monmouth, I realized that they had nothing, and people told me, ‘Can you help us? We don't have resources,’” Albarracin-Green said.

“The idea of the Welcoming Centers is that the welcoming services are a one stop shop where immigrants, refugees and limited English proficiency populations can come, and they can get their needs met. So, the idea is to help them with as many resources as possible."
Julia Albarracin-Green, president and CEO of Western Illinois Dreamers

Albarracin-Green said after completing research, she challenged herself to help immigrants living in rural communities in Illinois by providing them resources. She said WID began by helping undocumented students attend Illinois colleges and helping families with low literacy levels through literacy workshops.

“Nowadays, we have a double purpose of serving DACA recipients and dreamers in general, even the undocumented, with different resources. We also serve immigrant refugees and English learners, or what is called limited English proficiency populations,” Albarracin-Green said.

The Welcoming Center's grand opening is at noon on Saturday, but Peoria-area people needing assistance now can still access help through the Welcoming Center Tuesday through Saturday.

Albarracin-Green said the Welcoming Center is a unique “one stop shop” where immigrants, refugees and limited English proficiency populations can receive help from WID staff and if needed, an immigration attorney. She said this is important for Peoria because not many establishments can offer this type of help.

“We had a lot of people that needed help applying for Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, the ID numbers that undocumented immigrants use to pay for taxes. We have a program in the state called ‘Expanded Medicaid’ that provides health care to undocumented populations. So, we help with a lot of those. So, we provide a number of different services with this specific program,” Albarracin-Green said.

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Western Illinois Dreamers
Julia Albarracin-Green (left) is the President and CEO of Western Illinois Dreamers, and Laura Vargas is the director of the Peoria Welcoming Center.

Laura Vargas is the director for the Peoria Welcoming Center. She is from Los Angeles and lived in Mexico for a portion of her life. Vargas said when she moved to the Peoria area in 2007, she realized that the language barrier for immigrants now living in the Peoria area was a major issue.

“Within the school districts and medical, there's people that need a lot of help, and that's where we come in. So, we hope that with our help, even with a letter, a simple letter that they get in the mail, and they don't even understand, they can come to us,” Vargas said.

Vargas continued, “We can help them and to give them hope. So, then everybody can learn. It doesn't matter our age. We can learn little by little, so they don’t feel uncomfortable being in another place in their country of origin. So, I believe, and I know, that this is going to be very good for everybody here in Peoria, so we hope we can help them in any way.”

Vargas wants families in the Peoria area who are facing language or documentation-based challenges to know that they are not alone, and help does exist.

Albarracin-Green and Vargas both said many staff members are bilingual in both Spanish and English and one staff member in the agency speaks French, but immigrants with all language backgrounds can be supported. They said whenever they don’t have the resources to help, WID will find an answer and the means to translate into the needed language.

Both Albarracin-Green and Vargas emphasized that WID is a safe place for immigrants to receive confidential help.

“We don't submit the information to the government or anything like that. We're there to help them. The most vulnerable immigrants are our priority. They can come to us with any needs, any questions and we will help them with whatever in whatever way we can to get settled in the area, to register kids for schools. Laura can help with that, sign up for health insurance for the kids,” Albarracin-Green said. “In the state of Illinois, we have insurance for kids independently of their immigration status, and that's called ‘All Kids.’ So, we are safe space. We're here to help them.”

Vargas said she is devoted to helping other immigrants in the Peoria-area because there was a time where she felt lost and unsure on how to become plugged into the Peoria.

“I (felt), well, many things, discriminations and many things that I do not want people to go through,” Vargas said. “Like when I tell my kids ‘I want you to learn better for school so that you don't have to go to things that I went through,’ but I know sometimes we have to experience anyways our own path. For me, that's why I want to do it, because I don't want people to go through the same thing that I went through.”

Albarracin-Green echoed this same feeling from when she moved to the U.S. as an international student.

“I (experienced) also a very bad situation with (a) former person in my institution that wouldn't want to give me the sponsorship to get my green card. I was agonizing with that for four years,” she said.

“If I have to go through this with the resources that I have, that my family has, what I can’t imagine what it is like to be all alone, no documents, no one to talk to, no help whatsoever. So that's the reason why I also wanted to found the organization.”

The Peoria Welcoming Center is located at 516 Spring Street in Peoria and open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday.

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Jordan Mead is a reporting intern at WCBU. She joined the station in 2021.