C-U's message: You're welcome here

C-U's message: You're welcome here

CHAMPAIGN — Nearly 15 percent of Champaign residents, and almost 20 percent in Urbana, were born in another country, according to U.S. Census estimates.

They hail from around the globe — China, India, Mexico, Vietnam, the Congo and Canada. Some are low-wage workers, some high-tech entrepreneurs, some political refugees.

The majority — about 78 percent — are legal residents or U.S. citizens.

Their numbers now top 25,000, making Champaign-Urbana the largest immigrant community in Illinois outside of the Chicago area, and they account for much of the community's population growth since 2000, says Michael Doyle, executive director of the University YMCA.

They face many struggles when they arrive, from learning a new language and culture to finding a job.

For those reasons and more, the University YMCA in Champaign is creating a New American Welcome Center, one of six being established this year through the national YMCA.

The center will target immigrants and other newcomers, helping integrate them into the community and coordinating their access to services. It will provide referrals for everything from job training and citizenship classes to legal help, and promote "bridge-building" by connecting them with longtime residents, Doyle said.

The national YMCA created welcome centers as a pilot project in New York, Houston, Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Seattle and Long Beach, Calif. This year, it decided to expand with six more, including Champaign-Urbana; Charlotte, N.C.; Columbus, Ohio; Los Angeles; Portland, Maine; and Snohomish County in suburban Seattle.

"We're very excited about this," Doyle said.

The YMCA has always played a role in welcoming people into communities, whether it's providing housing or developing the first ESL classes in the United States, for German immigrants in Cincinnati at the turn of the last century, Doyle said. It has three core missions — youth development, healthy living and social responsibility, he said.

The University Y doesn't have a pool or gym but focuses on that last mission. UI students have already launched several initiatives through the University Y for immigrants, including a community survey that led to the creation of the C-U Immigration Forum, an advocacy group; the "We Dream" mentoring program for Latino students at Urbana High School; and "La Linea," a 24-hour helpline for the Spanish-speaking community and other immigrants in Champaign-Urbana.

60 meetings locally

The goal of the New American Welcome Center goes beyond creating a physical center with integrated services, though that's an important part of it, Doyle said.

The idea grew out of a "Welcoming America" initiative in Tennessee, now based in Atlanta, launched in response to several mosque-burnings and other anti-immigrant actions, Doyle said.

"Immigrant service agencies were saying, if we're providing services for people but our communities are rejecting immigrants on the face of it, we're just spinning our wheels," he said.

They argued that immigrants need support to flourish so they can contribute back to the community and local economy, Doyle said. So they focused on how to make the community more welcoming to immigrants, from government and nonprofit agencies to everyday citizens.

The Y's program identifies five "pathways to integration," including: eliminating language barriers and promoting access to education; creating opportunities for economic mobility through financial literacy classes and employment skills training; offering programs to support health and well-being and family bonds; promoting citizenship and opportunities to engage in civic life; and community development.

Each community is supposed to develop its own approach, based on local needs, Doyle said. He's already had 60 meetings with individuals and organizations that offer services to immigrants now or want to get involved.

They include nonprofits such as the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center, the C-U Immigration Forum and the Immigration Project (a legal services agency), as well as the two cities, school districts, other public sector agencies, elected officials, religious groups and business and community leaders.

"Our strength is community bridge-building," he said.

Among those serving on an advisory group are both mayors, state Rep. Carol Ammons, state Sen. Scott Bennett and representatives of immigrant groups, the Champaign County Economic Development Corp., Carle Health System, the UI and its Research Park.

Doyle said the response has been overwhelmingly positive, especially from faith communities.

"It feels like we're trying to drink out of a firehose," he said.

Politics not the focus

The group plans to map out what services are available and where the gaps are, and better organize volunteer efforts. Congregations are being asked to provide a list of services members can provide, from translation to rides to Chicago for immigration hearings to volunteers willing to pair up with new immigrants to create more interaction between the two communities.

The effort will not focus on undocumented immigrants, Doyle said.

"Because of the political debate, we tend to think of it this way," he said. "But this will not be necessarily political. It's about what do we do as a community to make ourselves welcoming."

Most families only have to go back a couple of generations to find an immigrant, he said.

"I'm here because my grandfather came from Ireland," he said. "It's an experience that has made America. This is about bringing the community around that."

Doyle said immigrants contribute to the economy and help stabilize population losses. Champaign County's immigration population rose by 4,589 between 2010 and 2013, compared to just 151 for the native-born group, he said.

In a report released Thursday, the Council on Global Affairs called immigration a "demographic lifeline" for Midwestern cities. Its data show that from 2000 to 2015, the number of foreign-born residents ages 35 to 44 in Champaign-Urbana rose by 2,131, while the number of native-born people in that category dropped by 4,472, or about 19.6 percent.

Immigration is "the engine of our community in many ways," Doyle said, noting that billionaire Shahid Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who lived at the University Y when he first came to Champaign, now provides jobs for thousands of residents.

Centralized approach

Interest in the new center cuts across the community — from the Research Park, which employs scores of high-tech immigrants; from the Jewish community, which helped Russian Jews emigrate here starting in the 1970s; from Champaign's First Presbyterian Church, which has a long waiting list for ESL classes targeted at its French-speaking Congolese population; from the UI, where international students and faculty often have children and spouses who may be overwhelmed by being in a new place; and from the Hindu Temple in Champaign, where members worry about recent attacks on temples and immigrants across the country.

"We do feel a little threatened in this climate," said temple President Pallassana Balgopal, a UI emeritus professor of social work who emigrated to the U.S. from India in 1960. He cited the shooting of two Indian men in Kansas last month by a man who shouted "get out of my country."

Balgopal said he and others at the temple jumped at the chance to help with the new welcome center. He believes any kind of prejudice or racial hatred stems from ignorance.

"The more we know about each other, the less we'll have fights and violence," he said.

Those who work with immigrants also welcomed the initiative.

Luis Cuza of the group C-U Friends and Allies of Immigrants and Refugees said it makes sense to have a central location where people can find help or get information they need, rather than hopping from one agency to the next. Many aren't familiar with the city, work odd hours or have jobs with little flexibility so they don't get paid if they take time off for personal business, he said.

"This will centralize and make it easier," he said.

'I can hardly wait'

The hope is to find a location by the end of the summer, perhaps near the Illinois Terminal in downtown Champaign, with easy access to trains and buses, Cuza said. Arcola, Danville, Rantoul and other areas outside Champaign-Urbana also have immigrant communities, he said.

The center will also give church members and other volunteers a tangible place to help, Cuza said.

"There are lots of people interested," he said.

Lucia Maldonado, Latino family liaison for the Urbana school district, said a center will be much more convenient for the growing number of immigrant students and their families, freeing them up to focus on school.

"I can hardly wait," she said. "I will feel comfortable sending someone there. I will be sure that they are going to be welcomed with a smile. We don't have that now."

Maldonado, who came to Champaign-Urbana 22 years ago from Mexico, can relate to immigrant struggles.

"When I got here, I didn't know any English. I couldn't communicate with anybody. I didn't know anything about the community. I know how it feels," she said.

A few months after she arrived, she became very sick. Her husband asked one of his friends to accompany her to the doctor's office to act as a translator and explain her symptoms.

"It was so embarrassing," she said.

With two young daughters, Maldonado decided she didn't want to "rely on someone else to explain what's wrong" if she had to take them to the doctor.

So she began learning English, a process that accelerated when she got a job taking orders at McDonald's.

"It was so difficult at the beginning. I almost cried," she said. "I forced myself to practice. I had to understand people with different accents. Some people were very nice when they realized I was having trouble. Others were very mean. But I'm always grateful, because that pushed me."

The American immigrant experience, coupled with the religious imperative to "welcome the stranger," means all of us have a responsibility for refugee and immigrant populations, said Rabbi Alan Cook of Sinai Temple in Champaign.

"At a time when we are told to fear the 'other,' I feel that communities of faith must recognize that our immigrant natures have hopes and dreams that mirror our own," Cook said. "The welcome center sends the message that we see them, we embrace them, we support them, and we recognize that the strength and vibrancy of our community is constructed on the realization that our fortunes are intertwined with theirs."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct information about the resttlement of Russian Jews from the former Soviet Union. The Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation's New Americans Committee organized that effort.


Around the world
How globally diverse is Champaign County? This diverse ...
➜ The UI had 10,547 international students in 2015-16 — 5,450 undergraduates and 5,097 graduate students. It’s been no lower than fifth nationally for 10 years running in the “Open Doors” report, which ranks the top schools for hosting students from other countries.
➜ According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Champaign’s foreign-born population covers at least 76 of the world’s 195 countries. Asian nations make up 66.4 percent of the total, but Champaign also has 237 native Canadians, 182 Russians and 176 Liberians.
➜ Close to three-fourths of Urbana’s immigrants hail from Asian nations (74.2 percent), according to the Census Bureau. Its population includes immigrants from at least 69 countries, including Iran (198), Pakistan (196), the Philippines (158) and Turkey (142).

In the big leagues

What does Champaign-Urbana have in common with three of the country’s four most populous cities? They’ve all been selected by the national YMCA to host a New American Welcome Center. Only 11 different areas were chosen. (Seattle and its suburbs each get one). C-U is among the two smallest host communities — by a bunch — according to U.S. Census figures:

New York: 8,550,405
Los Angeles: 3,971,883
Houston: 2,296,224
Columbus, Ohio: 850,106
Charlotte, N.C.: 827,097
Minneapolis-St. Paul: 711,790
Seattle: 684,451
Boston: 667,137
Long Beach, Calif.: 474,140
Champaign-Urbana: 128,407
Portland, Maine: 66,881

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Comments for this post are read only.

BruckJr wrote on March 26, 2017 at 2:03 pm

The majority — about 78 percent — are legal residents or U.S. citizens.

So the rest are, what, illegal?  .22*25,000=5000.  Are you saying that there are 5000 illegals in CU?

Dread Pirate DNT wrote on March 27, 2017 at 9:03 am
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I would glady trade 5000 dumb, lazy rednecks in red ball caps for 5000 undocumented immigrants. Trumpsters are the real leeches in our society. The worst part is most of them don't even know that their benefits will also disappear under this régime.

Shoot'em up wrote on March 26, 2017 at 5:03 pm

The majority of Americans have no issues with immigrants who are here legally. Its the illegal aliens who are the problem stealing services and breaking the law from those here that need those services

CallSaul wrote on March 26, 2017 at 6:03 pm

The only people who oppose all imigration are, by definition, nativist bigots.

And a majority supports paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who haven't committed serious crimes.

All immigrants, legal and undocumented, commit crimes at a lower rate than people who were born here

Kudos to the University YMCA for doing this. They continue to do good work and to be a huge asset to the community.

Congrats, University YMCA and keep up the good work!

capt80 wrote on March 26, 2017 at 8:03 pm

Unless it's YOUR daughter who gets raped at school, right??

Don't hurt yourself when you fall off your high horse.

CallSaul wrote on March 26, 2017 at 11:03 pm

High horse...?

I guess you say that because you anticipate that I'm going to say that your bigoted statement is, y'know, bigoted.

Again, all immigrants, whether documented or not, commit less crime proportionately than people born here.

Yet another native born extremist Christian rightwing Republican male state legislator was just busted with an underage male prostitute in a roadside motel.

That kind of thing seems to happen fairly often.

So, assuming you were born here given your nativist statement, she'd be safer in a school full of immigrants, documented and not, than in a school full of people like you...

benbit wrote on March 26, 2017 at 10:03 pm

A significant portion of the remaining 22% would be non-resident aliens, foreign students here on visas.

res0a47 wrote on March 27, 2017 at 4:03 am

If you let these immigrant in the U.S we are going to be shot and our homes will be broken in too. So no keep them away from Champaign,/Urbana. We will have another London attacks. No there is no more room at the in. U.S. is closed. They need to go back to where they came from.

Dread Pirate DNT wrote on March 27, 2017 at 7:03 am
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This is why we can't have nice things.

bookworm wrote on March 27, 2017 at 10:03 am

The East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center has been operating in Urbana for over 35 years.  They need support to make up for state funding losses.  This new group should look to ECIRMAC first before reinventing the wheel.  Their resources are available in at least 12 languages, plus they have special classes for children.  A great local resource that this article totally misses.

BruckJr wrote on March 27, 2017 at 11:03 am

Thanks, ben.  Odd that Ms. Worth wouldn't have explained that rather than list them as part of the immigrant community.

Joe American wrote on March 27, 2017 at 12:03 pm

The YMCA is long past its glory days of being an organization that mattered.  Now they're nothing more than an activist collective using up valuable real estate and oxygen.


Their proclamation is irrelevant.  As long as the vast majority of Americans continue to oppose illegal immigration and the coddlers who support them, and as long as WE have ears and eyes, never forget the Obama Administration's Dept. of Homeland Security campaign of,


"If you see something, say something".


Report illegal activity to your local ICE office:


David Green wrote on March 27, 2017 at 3:03 pm

The article on the nature of the local immigrant population and local efforts to support immigrants in yesterday's News-Gazette included this:

"Immigration is "the engine of our community in many ways," Doyle said, noting that billionaire Shahid Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who lived at the University Y when he first came to Champaign, now provides jobs for thousands of residents."


Wow. How to unpack this, as they say in academia.

It seems that a few years ago, the UAW was trying to organize the diverse workers in Khan's plant, with plenty of horror stories of their work conditions being told, at Channing-Murray and elsewhere. I haven't heard much since.

We have an exploited immigrant community. We also have a highly successful and privileged immigrant community, obviously including on our campus, including both faculty and administrators. We have many highly-skilled immigrants working well-paid, professional jobs around our community. We have immigrants building local businesses.

And we have the predatory Shahid Khan as a local hero.

A recent feature in the News-Gazette highlighted a collection of local immigrants--enormously motivated, skilled, and talented, and hardly oppressed in the larger scheme of things, including someone I consider a friend:


At the same time, we have a domestic working class--white, black, Latino, etc.--that is squeezed from all sides in all ways. In the zero-sum game that has become the neoliberal globalized economy, their educational and vocational opportunities have been limited in a number of ways. We have a public university that avidly recruits foreign and out-of-state students, primarily for economic reasons. Meanwhile, many domestic students of relatively modest means go into debt and have in many cases limited vocational opportunities.

We have complicated relationships among the globalized economy, our aggressive wars (in the ME and Central America and beyond), immigrants, refugees, etc., some of which are personified in our local immigrant population, whether relatively privileged or oppressed. But discussion of those wars and of our general foreign policy is of course kept apart from advocacy for immigrant rights, as are discussions of the ravages of globalized neoliberalism, which is part and parcel with fiscal austerity, of which working class citizens bear the brunt.

Among local immigrants are those I have worked with in various ways, including professionally, including children at the school at which I volunteer. I have immigrant friends whom I truly love and have enriched my life enormously.

In our high-powered analytical community, however, I perceive a reluctance to grapple with the relationships among globalization, economic inequality, trans-national global elites, and the relationship of these things to immigration and immigrant communities of various kinds at the local level, in the context of the struggle of the American working class. I perceive, rightly or wrongly, that such critiques are avoided because they might challenge the prevailing progressive/neoliberal norms of tolerance, as well as "problematize" standard criticism of those who voted for Donald Trump as racist and bigoted.

Academia is negatively implicated in these pernicious trends, in myriad ways. But academia is, in the final analysis, all about self-congratulation, not self-criticism.

Even our local right-wing newspaper is apparently on board with a rather sentimentalized and simplistic notion of immigration. And why wouldn't they be? Nothing about general support for immigrants challenges the neoliberal militarism of the ruling class, including the local bourgeoisie. After all, some immigrants enlist in our military and fight and die in our wars. Perhaps one day one of them will be featured in the weekly stories of "those who served."

Carol Ammons and Scott Bennett are mentioned in yesterday's article. Neither of them would dare miss an opportunity to display their tolerance. But do they represent the interests of their citizen-constituents? I think it's a fair question, but of course one that cannot be asked in the progressive community as it is currently constituted, especially insofar as it is constituted by the Democratic Party.