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updated: 3/20/2017 4:35 PM

Elgin's Centro for immigrants 'needed more than ever,' co-founder says

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  • Centro de Informacion volunteer Tish Calhamer helps a client fill out an immigration form Monday.

      Centro de Informacion volunteer Tish Calhamer helps a client fill out an immigration form Monday.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Executive Director Jaime Garcia talks about Elgin's Centro de Informacion as it prepares to celebrate its 45th year Tuesday.

      Executive Director Jaime Garcia talks about Elgin's Centro de Informacion as it prepares to celebrate its 45th year Tuesday.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Andrea Janos talks about how she went from client to outreach coordinator at Centro de Informacion in Elgin.

      Andrea Janos talks about how she went from client to outreach coordinator at Centro de Informacion in Elgin.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 

Centro de Informacion opened its doors to help Elgin's immigrant community 45 years ago Tuesday, and it's needed more than ever, co-founder and Executive Director Jaime Garcia says.

"I have never seen our community so afraid," Garcia said.

The agency at 28 N. Grove Ave. in downtown Elgin has a staff of 15 serving a largely Spanish-speaking clientele but also immigrants from Poland, India, China and others. There's been a 20 to 30 percent surge in clients since last fall, driven first by fears that Donald Trump would be elected president, and then by the reality of it, Garcia said.

Immigrants living here illegally want to get passports for their U.S.-born children, give power of attorney over to their children to relatives and friends, and figure out how to deal with mortgages, bank accounts and car loans if they are deported, Garcia said.

Immigrants who have permanent residency, or so-called "green cards," want to apply for U.S. citizenship "because they don't want any problems," he said.

Client Rolando Leal of Schaumburg came in Monday morning wanting to apply for U.S. citizenship. He's been a resident for about 20 years and should have learned English along the way, he said, so he's grateful Centro can help him out.

"This is a great country," he said, declining to comment on the current political climate.

Centro has satellite offices in Hanover Park and Carpentersville. It also offers classes in financial literacy, parenting skills and more, and an emergency food pantry three afternoons a week.

Its services are much more affordable than those of immigration lawyers. For example, a consultation is $40 and help in filling out a petition to sponsor a relative is $270. Clients are responsible for all fees charged by U.S. Customs and Immigration Services. Some clients, such as those with criminal backgrounds, are referred to lawyers, Garcia said.

The lack of lawyers on staff at first gave her pause, said former client Andrea Janos of Arlington Heights, who was a lawyer in her native Argentina. She now works at Centro as outreach coordinator.

"They helped me very well and very fast," she said. "I was fascinated with this place. I said, 'Oh, I want to work here.'"

The current political climate has made it more difficult to give advice to some clients, such as youths living here illegally who consider applying for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Garcia said.

"What if you give the government your information and then they decide to do away with the program (and you could possibly be deported)? But it's also a reprieve for two years." Garcia said. "They have to make that choice."

Garcia co-founded Centro in 1972 with the Rev. Ivan Rovira, formerly of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Elgin. Garcia served on the board of directors until 2007, when he began his tenure as executive director after his retirement from Elgin Area School District U-46.

Like most social service agencies in Illinois, Centro -- whose current budget is about $660,000 -- had cuts in state funding, which in turn eliminated programs like individual and family counseling, and in-home assistance for the elderly and disabled, Garcia said.

Centro de Informacion will celebrate its 45th anniversary with an open house 4:30 to 7 p.m. April 11 in Elgin. Its Facebook page is facebook.com/CentroinElgin and its website is centrodeinformacion.org.

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