DeKALB – Addressing a room full of college students Tuesday on the Northern Illinois University campus, U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Naperville, called the current state of student loans “predatory” and said she hopes to make basic higher education affordable for everyone.
“Funding colleges and universities should not be controversial,” Underwood said, “And yet we’re asking young people or really motivated students to sign over their rights in order to just have a chance at earning a degree.”
She said budget cuts at the federal level for higher education institutions have unfairly placed the fiscal responsibility on students and families to directly fund their education. She said she hopes the Higher Education Act will include Pell grants that will reflect the “true cost” of college, so students don’t have “predatory student loans that have terms that would never fly in the home-buying market or auto market.”
Underwood addressed a wide variety of topics, such as the tariff war between the U.S. and China, Democrat and Republican gridlock in Washington, D.C., and detention centers at the border.
She returned to her recent remarks calling for gun law and health care reform, and spoke about what it’s like to represent the 14th Congressional District as a Democrat, which has historically been a Republican set.
Student representatives from DREAM Action NIU, a campus advocacy group that seeks to raise awareness and support for undocumented or immigrant students, asked what they can do to support Underwood’s efforts for undocumented immigrants. Underwood advised writing letters to elected officials.
Amanda Littauer, associate professor in NIU’s Center for the Study of Women, Gender & Sexuality and History also sits on Underwood’s advisory committee on higher education and asked about family separation in relation to Underwood’s appointment as the vice chairman for the House Committee on Homeland Security.
“What’s happening in terms of trying to address some of the inhumane conditions and treatment of some of the migrant families in these camps?” Littauer said.
Underwood, who said she’s visited the U.S-Mexico border three times, said her medical screenings bill, which she introduced in July, will be up for a vote on the House floor this month.
“[The bill] says anybody who comes into U.S. custody has to get basic medical screening within their first 12 hours,” Underwood said, who has a master’s degree in public health and nursing from Johns Hopkins University.
“Are you coming with medication? Do you have an active infectious disease? Are you sick? How do you feel?” she asked. “So they can keep themselves and others healthy so we don’t have people dying in U.S. custody.”
For northern Illinois farmers, soybean production was significantly affected by a historically wet spring, and Underwood said further harm was caused by the ongoing trade dispute with China.
“It had a devastating affect on the 14th District,” she said. “We’ve seen rain literally every day this spring, and folks weren’t able to get their seed into the ground. We have families that are legit hurting in our community because of the trade war.”
She said she hopes clean energy legislation, which she supports, will include ways to encourage job growth in addition to climate change legislation for health reasons.
“Illinois, I think overall, has been leader in our region,” Underwood said. “But other regions in our state are leaning in more than we are in northern Illinois. We’re pretty close to [Interstate 88], which is known as the research and technology corridor. I think we have to be intentional in making sure we are leaning into that clean energy sector not just for climate health, but also to make sure people are employed in these sustainable positions.”
Colin Kuehl, who teaches clinical science and environmental studies at NIU, wondered what could be done about political gridlock in Washington, D.C., especially as Underwood comes from a historically Republican district.
Underwood is the youngest black woman to serve in Congress.
As she did frequently in her remarks Tuesday, Underwood emphasized what she called “we the people” in creating historic change.
“Last year we flipped
42 seats, and we did that in a district that has been historically Republican since forever,” Underwood said. “We know the people voted a different way. We’ve seen what our collective power can do.”