Posted on October 14, 2004

Immigrant Task Force Assembled

Mike Ramsey, Peoria Journal Star (Ill.), Oct. 12

CHICAGO — Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Monday named members of a task force who will examine the plight of Hispanic immigrant workers across Illinois.

The 14-person panel, which includes academics, government and labor officials and advocates for immigrants, is expected to make legislative and policy recommendations by the end of the year. Its core mission is to determine why Hispanics account for what the Blagojevich administration says is a disproportionately large number of workplace injuries and fatalities.

Particularly vulnerable, officials say, are “day laborers” — oftentimes illegal immigrants — who are exploited by employers and subjected to long hours and unsafe working conditions.

“They’re picked and chosen because they’re vulnerable, because no one will stand up and speak for them and fight for them,” task force member Luis Gutierrez, a Democratic congressman from Chicago, said at a news conference with Blagojevich. “And what this panel is going to attempt to do, to the best of our ability, we’re going to stand and we’re going to speak for them.”

Blagojevich said two reforms immediately come to mind. One, he said, is strengthening state law so that licensed agencies that find day laborers for businesses address health and safety issues. The other is promoting the use of bilingual safety instructions in workplaces.

Executive director Tim Bell of the Day Laborer Collaboration, a watchdog group for immigrant workers, estimated there are up to 500,000 day laborers in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs and another 50,000 to 150,000 in downstate regions. The laborers work in a variety of fields, including manufacturing, food processing, agriculture and the service industry.

Although immigrant populations are concentrated in the Chicago area, pockets of them are found in central and southern Illinois communities such as Beardstown, Bloomington and Carbondale, said Josh Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

“Mexican workers are making the Amish brooms in Arcola,” Hoyt said. “In Beardstown, Mexicans are the ones in the plant killing pigs. There’s now large numbers of immigrants, both high-skilled and low-skilled, all across the state.”

Creation of the new task force comes as Blagojevich faces criticism from some Latino lawmakers who say his administration has not hired enough Hispanics. Blagojevich, the son of Serbian-born steelworker, says he has long been interested in workplace safety for immigrants.