This election season JCUA has been working on a civic engagement campaign to involve the Chicago-area Jewish community in non-partisan Get-Out-the-Vote efforts that seek to increase voter participation in communities with historically low turnout. JCUA’s campaign, Define America 2010, is part of a national effort through the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a group of 18 major Jewish organizations working to build a robust Jewish social movement. One of the partner organizations in the campaign is the Father Gary Graf Center in Waukegan, Ill., where the work is connected to a larger strategy of empowering the immigrant community.
By Emily Zucker Burns
Jewish Community Organizer, JCUA
How can an entire community win an election?
Waukegan, Ill. Oct.17, 2010– The San Luis Banquet Hall pulses with the electric energy of more than 200 diverse residents who are gathered to hear candidates for the midterm election talk about issues of immigration, job creation and education.
Alexi Giannoulias (running for U.S. Senate), Dan Seals (running for Illinois’ 10th Congressional District), and Lake County Board and Sheriff contenders arrive shaking hands and kissing babies—prepared to hear the stories of everyday residents’ lives.
Also present are representatives of a diverse coalition that formed to organize this event around a shared platform of common values: the Father Gary Graf Center, representing the Latino community of Waukegan; the Islamic Foundation North, representing the Muslim population of the north suburbs; the Black Chamber of Commerce, representing minority business interests; and the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA), proud to bring representation of Lake County and 10th District Jews to the group.
The forum in Waukegan is about much more than just the candidates. It is a chance for ordinary community leaders to present their stories and concerns to those who seek their votes—it is a rare window of opportunity when a community has direct access to a candidate’s ear.
A young undocumented student asks if the candidates will support the DREAM Act to give her a path to citizenship; a Muslim man asks what they will do about growing Islamophobia; a new mom asks how they can help her finally find a job after over a year of searching.
No matter what the outcome is of the November 2nd elections, the leaders in Waukegan know they have already won when the candidates hear their stories and feel the power of a community willing to fight for change.
Waukegan and the anti-immigrant backlash
About an hour north of Chicago, Waukegan, Ill. is a city of about 91,000 people with deep roots in industry and manufacturing. Waukegan has been a destination for many Mexican immigrants seeking work and a new home; according to the 2000 census, Latinos make up 44 percent of the city’s population. Almost 14 percent of the city’s population lives under the poverty line (Source: Wikipedia).
As the demographics of the city began to change, many long-time residents embraced the newcomers as a much-needed stimulus to the local economy. Others, however, were less welcoming to immigrants.
After decades of bubbling anti-immigrant sentiments, the Waukegan City Council voted in 2007 to pursue a program that allows local police to enforce immigration laws, Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
This action sparked a fire across the city and more than 3,000 people came out to rally on both sides of the issue, the vast majority of whom vehemently opposed the policy, which they said would greatly increase deportations and police harassment in the Latino community.
After the dust from the protests settled, the community leaders knew that in order to win real change they would need to fight the harsh policies with the same tools that were used to create them. They began an intensive Get-Out-the-Vote campaign to register and mobilize Latino voters to the polls for the 2008 General Elections.
The effort was fierce, with residents spending hours talking to voters and even running phone banks out of a Mexican restaurant, resulting in a huge increase in Latino voter turnout. In the April 2009 municipal elections, the community saw major results from their work: a new mayor was elected who was much more supportive of immigrant rights and the Latino community.
Later that year this work was solidified with the formation of the Father Gary Graf Immigrant Center. Based out the Most Blessed Trinity Catholic Church, the center offers classes in English, GED, citizenship preparation and literacy, as well as free legal consultations. In addition the center serves as a base for community organizing and building political power to take on issues like 287(g).
Call to action:
This election season the Father Gary Graf Immigrant Center is engaging hundreds of volunteers on a non-partisan campaign to continue to build political power for the large and underrepresented immigrant community of Waukegan.
Over the last two years, the center has registered more 1,100 new immigrant voters and this year they are working to turn out 5,000 voters to the polls on November 2nd. JCUA is supporting the campaign by bringing Jewish volunteers to stand in solidarity with the immigrants of Waukegan and work side by side with the community leaders who are devoting countless hours of time to make Waukegan a better place for all its residents.
There is still time to help out in Waukegan!
Join JCUA to get out the vote during the following times:
Sunday, October 31: Get Out the Vote AND get some candy on Halloween! (12 pm – 3 pm)
Election Day, November 2: Many volunteer opportunities all day long! (8 am – 7 pm)
For more information on any of these opportunities, please contact Sandi Gutstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-663-0960 x124.