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Panel backs immigrant ‘welcoming center’

Members of Evanston’s Social Services Committee voted unanimously Thursday evening to recommend that the city fund a welcoming center for immigrants.

The center would be operated by Family Focus at its building in the 5th Ward. First year funding of up to $500,000 for the program would come from the city’s federal American Rescue Plan Act grant.

Mariana Osoria, senior vice president of partnerships and engagement for Family Focus, said the group is already operating similar centers in Aurora and Chicago, where they provide an array of services, including interpretation, naturalization information, court advocacy and grief counseling.

Osoria said few migrants being shipped out of Texas by the governor there have come to Evanston so far, but the agency has pivoted staff at other centers to respond when some have arrived in those neighborhoods and supports them with emergency housing assistance and clothing.

When some arrived, Osoria said, “all they had were the clothes they were wearing.”

She said it was important to be able to respond and support their needs as quickly as possible.

Amanda Ngola.

Committee member Amanda Ngola said it sounds like the services the program would offer “are fantastic,” but she asked about funding for the program after the ARPA money runs out.

Osoria said that based on conversations with state officials, she’s hopeful that funding for such centers across the state will increase in future years, and that the state legislature already increased funding by $20 million in the last legislative session.

The proposal also received support from leaders of the Evanston Latinos organization who said their volunteer group has been trying to provide such services and know they are greatly needed.

Also speaking during public comment, School District 65 Board President Sergio Hernandez, who said he’s the son of immigrants, suggested doubling the funding to $1 million so Evanston could have “the highest quality refugee and immigrant center.”

The ARPA grant will still require City Council approval.

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