By Brooke Moscow, Public and Global Affairs Intern
On April 8, Niagara Foundation was thrilled to host Dr. Alie Kabba, Executive Director of the United African Organization, for a Chicago & Global Family roundtable talk about his work in the politics of immigrant integration in Illinois.
Dr. Kabba has been at the forefront of the fight for immigration reform in Illinois since he moved to Chicago from his native Sierra Leone in 1991. He is entirely dedicated to preserving Illinois’ status as the most immigrant-friendly state in the U.S., and working with immigrant leaders of all different religious, ethnic and national backgrounds to achieve empowerment and provide important services and resources to all immigrant communities.
Besides being a dogged champion of immigrant reform, Dr. Kabba is also a pragmatic leader, and has a shrewd understanding of what it takes to get things done in today’s political climate. He emphasized the importance of joining forces with other immigrant community leaders in order to advance their common interests; although there are inevitably challenges when bringing together such a diverse group, he recognizes that it is imperative to convene around a common cause and work as a united front in order to make real change happen and protect immigrant interests.
Dr. Kabba also discussed the complex political landscape that he and others fighting for immigrant rights must navigate, and how they work to gain support from Illinois state legislators from across the ideological spectrum. When he first began his advocacy work, he garnered support primarily from Democrats in the state legislate, most of whom were members of the Latino caucus. He eventually created a coalition between the Latino and Black caucuses, which was an important move in gaining political traction for his cause. Over the past several decades, Dr. Kabba has worked to convince politicians on both sides of the aisle that granting immigrants rights and providing services is not just a social justice issue, but that it is also good for the economy; he argued that granting citizenship to immigrants creates a larger tax base for the state and also that because immigrants are responsible for many new businesses in the state, immigrant services help fuel the economy. Dr. Kabba stated that because of this, investing in immigrants is a win-win situation.
Dr. Kabba shared with us several important victories in the fight for immigrant rights, such as the passing of the New American Initiative, a bipartisan act that provides funding to immigrant associations and legal assistance to immigrants, as well as the Immigrant Family Resource Program, which helps immigrants gain access to important resources such as obtaining drivers licenses. However, he said that there are still many challenges in what has recently become an uphill battle after Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner eliminated funding for immigrant programs and services in order to address the state’s massive budget deficit. While Dr. Kabba acknowledged that this cut is a significant setback for many immigrant programs (he estimated that nearly sixty programs will be impacted), he remained hopeful for the future. He believes that there is a way to responsibly balance the state’s budget while still investing in important immigrant services that will empower the immigrant population while also benefiting the greater population of Illinois. Dr. Kabba stated, “It has to work for all or it will work for none.”
We thank Dr. Kabba for his engaging talk and look forward to hearing more about his important work in immigrant integration politics.