CHICAGO — This fall, at the top of every Illinois voter’s ballot is not the presidential race but rather a proposed amendment to the state constitution: “It gives the State the ability to impose higher tax rates on those with higher income levels and lower income tax rates on those with middle or lower income levels.”
The terminology can be confusing, said Fasika Alem, the programs director of the United African Organization, which serves African immigrants and refugees in Illinois. But the most important part is this: “The amendment looks like it’s going to be good for our community.”
Representatives of other immigrant organizations in Chicago echoed her sentiment. Though the amendment itself does not set tax rates, it would allow a set of laws passed last year to go into effect. Based on those laws, the people served by immigrant organizations would be taxed at a lower rate, since they tend to have incomes under $100,000.
At the same time, the estimated increase in tax revenue (which would come in due to higher tax rates on high-income people) would alleviate Illinois’ budget crunch and could fund crucial services.
“If this passes, and it increases the state revenue, some of that will be used to provide these safety net services from the state,” Alem explained.
One service that Alem said is important to her network is language access, from the Ethiopian community’s Amharic to the Ghanian community’s Twi.
“It could help make sure that state agencies have the resources to be able to provide services to people in the languages they’re most comfortable with,” she said.
Alem and other immigrant community representatives also mentioned public benefits like health care, childcare, education and unemployment insurance.
“In Illinois, from March to April, the increase in unemployment insurance applications among Asians is at a staggering 1,300 percent,” said Grace Chan McKibben, executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community. “During the pandemic, some restaurants are reporting a loss of income up to 80 or 90 percent.”
Chan McKibben said this amendment could alleviate the tax burden on vulnerable populations as well as many small business owners in the Chinatown area, and support residents who are experiencing hardship during the pandemic.
The increased revenue could also benefit immigrant services, said Maya Atassi, deputy director at Syrian Community Network. Among other organizations mentioned in this story, SCN receives funds from the state for translation, outreach and case management for low-income immigrants to access benefits. Many clients of SCN are applying for citizenship, so civic education and language assistance are crucial for them.
“[We’re] trying to make sure that people who are eligible or need access to public benefits, especially right now during COVID, are going to have the access to all the benefits when they need them,” said Atassi.
Despite these benefits for immigrant communities, it’s a challenge to engage immigrant voters in the issue—not least because the pandemic has limited the typical on-the-ground campaigning of election season.
“When we talk about the folks who don’t have access to support programs, more often than not it is immigrant communities, so you’re paying into the system and rarely reap the benefits of the system,” said Viviana Barajas, a DuPage County community organizer with The People’s Lobby, a grassroots group that supports progressive legislation.
There’s no door-knocking happening now, Barajas said, but they’re using other methods like phone- and text-banking. “The most efficient way to convince someone is to have a full-blown conversation and go down the bullet points they hear from attack ads,” she said.
In addition to phone-banking, HANA Center has sent out about 17,000 Korean-language mailers, according to the group’s lead organizer Youngwoon Han. For their community, it helps to mention that the South Korean government has a graduated income tax. “What we are asking for is not out of the ordinary,” he said.
One in 6 foreign-born Koreans in the United States is undocumented, and Koreans make up the largest portion of DACA recipients from an East Asian country—“so undocumented issues are our issues too,” Han said. Illinois’ recurring budget shortages make it hard to expand services for undocumented residents, he said.
Immigrant advocates say that misinformation and lack of translated information around the tax amendment are two big threats to its passage. While the amendment’s opponents advertise it as a “tax hike,” sometimes people don’t know that only high-income earners will get that tax hike.
“I live in Pilsen, which is an 80 percent Latino neighborhood. I have not received a single piece of information, either in favor or against, in Spanish,” said Jorge Mújica, strategic campaigns organizer at Arise Chicago, a labor rights group. He knows the amendment would be good for the low-wage workers that their group serves, but he said he’s frustrated by the lack of translated voter information. And that’s not limited to this amendment—it applies to other down-ballot races like the judges, he said.
But Adilene Barragan, who is campaigning for the amendment through her work at Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, said that when people get solid information, they understand the benefit of this change to the tax code.
“People were angry at how little taxes Trump pays,” she said. “I want to let people know that there’s something you can do with that anger to change this… We are taxing the rich and allowing the rich to start paying what they should have been paying all these years, [and] that money can also be reinvested into our communities.
She added, “It may not solve all the income inequalities in Illinois … but it’s a step in the right direction.”
This report was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Bronzeville. Learn more and get involved at citybureau.org.