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Fund for Immigrants and Refugees



U.S. Census Bureau

Illinois immigration
in the 1990s

Number of new immigrants: 384,026

99 percent of counties show
growth in Asian population

All Illinois counties saw growth in Hispanic populations


Source: Report by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant Refugee Rights, June 2000



Immigration in the suburbs

Foreign-born suburban residents 628,000
Permanent legal, naturalized citizens 459,000
Undocumented immigrants 150,000
Refugees and asylum-seekers 19,000


Countries of origin of suburban immigrants*
Mexico 95,370
India 34,943
Poland 32,977
Philippines 26,647
Korea 16,738
United Kingdom 12,898
Former USSR 11,095
Former Yugoslavia 10,496
China 7,812
Ireland 6,664
Pakistan 5,759
Romania 3,348
Vietnam 2,942
Jordan 2,756
Iraq 2,678
Guatemala 2,331
Other 107,518


Source: August 2000 Report of the Fund for Immigrants and Refugees

The new immigrants

An increasing number of families plot their route
to the American Dream by way of Illinois' suburbs and small towns

by Dave McKinney

Hector Lamas can buy a pair of shoes without using his entire paycheck, a small but sure step toward achieving the American Dream. To take that step, he left Mexico in 1994, arriving a short time later in Fairmont City, barely a dot on the road map.

Lamas, 32, supervises about 45 people at a produce company in St. Louis, a good job in a place he’d never live. Missouri’s largest city is “too noisy” and unsafe, he says. Instead, he, his wife and their two children live about 10 minutes away, across the Mississippi River in an Illinois town where there hasn’t been a murder in years and where there are more baptisms than in any other Catholic parish in the Metro East region.

“It’s like a good neighborhood around here. You feel free to go anyplace, anytime. At 10 or 11 at night, you can walk on the streets. There is no problem. No nothing. This is why we try to live here,’’ he says.

Lamas isn’t alone in this attitude. Fairmont City is drawing an increasing number of Mexican immigrants who are choosing to bypass the urban neighborhoods of St. Louis and settle in southern Illinois. As a result, Fairmont City’s Hispanic

population has more than doubled since 1990, making whites the minority for the first time. A community that was home to European immigrant meatpackers in the 1930s now nurtures wave after wave of Mexicans seeking a better life.

Fairmont City has undergone a jolting transformation, but it’s a transformation that’s taking place across the state. Illinois’ Hispanic population has grown by 69 percent since the last statewide head count, and these immigrants have been joined by other groups. The state’s Asian population has grown even faster, by 70 percent over the last census. This infusion of new residents helped reverse five decades of population losses in Chicago. But an increasing number of immigrant families have plotted their route toward the American Dream by sidestepping urban neighborhoods, where crime is high and the schools underperform. They’re settling instead in the smaller communities that dot the state from Metro East to suburban Chicago.

“The quality of life is better. It’s more safe, and there are better job opportunities,’’ says Rajesh Dhawan, a 28-year-old Indian-born immigrant who came to America in the early 1990s. His first destination in the United States was Indiana State University in Terre Haute, where he completed a master’s degree. From there, he migrated with his wife to Aurora, west of Chicago, and works as a software engineer at Lucent Technologies in Lisle.

Demographers and immigration advocates have begun charting this border-to-suburb trend, and census data expected next year likely will bear out their findings. The most recent estimates have shown that more than four out of every 10 new immigrants in Illinois locate in a suburb first, instead of in more traditional immigrant-friendly places like Chicago’s Pilsen or Ukrainian Village neighborhoods.And that means diversity is spreading throughout the Land of Lincoln. Immigrant groups expect the census data to show that as many as one in two immigrants are bypassing urban centers for their first home, which would be a historic high.

“We’ve seen a big surge in the immigrant population in the central city. However, you’ll find an even greater amount scattered in the suburbs,” says Scott Deuel, a Chicago-based geographic coordinator for the U.S. Census Bureau.

The reasons for settlement patterns are consistent. Immigrants seek out places where there are the most jobs, where it’s safest and where previous waves of immigrant families can act as hosts for those who continue to come to this country. That was true during each of the great immigration waves Illinois has experienced, dating back to the 1800s. But those immigrants moved in mass numbers to Chicago to work in the stockyards or the steel mills, creating close-knit ethnic communities within the larger city. Now, the suburbs outside older urban centers are becoming the preferred landing point. In the process, the newest immigrants are transforming entire towns.

As Hector Lamas’ experience suggests, odds are the breadwinner of a family in Fairmont City draws a paycheck from a nearby orchard, or an auto-shredding firm or one of the processing companies in St. Louis’ Produce Row that help put fruit and vegetables in grocery stores throughout the region. By middle-class standards, it’s not big money, but it’s enough to pay rent that typically runs about $200 a month. Crime is low, even though the town borders East St. Louis. The rectory doors at Holy Rosary Catholic Church aren’t locked, and the mayor compares his hometown of 2,436 residents to Mayberry.

“You look at the tiny shotgun houses and see the families. You feel the love. Even though it might be humble circumstances, there is something you can measure here,’’ says the Rev. David Wilke, Holy Rosary’s pastor.

Fairmont City Mayor Alex Bregen, a lifelong resident and grandson of Czech and Polish immigrants, doesn’t need a battery of statistics or demographic theory to confirm the shift that has made Fairmont City, on a percentage basis, home to the third-largest population of Hispanics in Illinois behind the Chicago suburbs of Stone Park and Cicero.

“It was culture shock. The [non-Hispanic] neighbors didn’t understand,” Bregen says, noting that Sundays were a big day for the newcomers. “Live goats were brought in and slaughtered and hung up for barbecue. In the interim, while the blood drained, everybody would have a soccer match and, afterwards, a roast. It was just a party.”

By hiring Hispanic police officers and adopting an open mind that didn’t involve writing a lot of tickets, the city gradually educated new immigrants on Midwestern social mores. As a result, longer-term residents became more tolerant. In the meantime, many of the customs brought from abroad began to take hold in the community, the mayor says. “It’s been a challenge to us, but now it’s to the point where neighbors are accepting neighbors. They are the most helpful, hardworking people you’ve ever seen,’’ the mayor says of his Hispanic constituents. “It’s a whole new birth to this community.”

A decade ago, Bregen says, he could name about 85 percent of the families living in the town’s 280-some homes. Now he knows fewer, as familiar faces from his childhood have left for more affluent areas. In their places are a new batch of community-loving residents from abroad. “I miss my peers. I occasionally will see some of my old high school and grade school chums. I wish they were still living here. But, no exaggeration, probably less than a dozen [non-Hispanic] people between the ages of 35 and 45 — people basically my age — still live in this community and are still raising a family,’’ Bregen says. “It’s different. But at the same time, it’s pretty much the same. I’m very proud of it.”

That trend is reshaping northern Illinois, as well. A study last September by the Chicago-based Fund for Immigrants and Refugees found that one in seven persons in the Chicago area is foreign-born, amounting to an estimated 628,000 people, with about a quarter of those undocumented. More significant, nearly 42 percent of Chicago-area immigrants live in the suburbs, compared to about 34 percent in 1970. And of those suburban immigrants, the most common country of origin is Mexico, followed distantly by India, Poland and the Philippines.

“About half of all new arrivals are bypassing the city. I think there are several things that act as magnets for new arrivals,’’ says Alice Cottingham, executive director of the Fund for Immigrants and Refugees. “One is [that] the vast majority of immigration is founded in the reality of family reunification. What you have is one person from a family who comes here and moves to a suburb, settles and works and then can bring over other family members. When a family is reunified, that’s where the family resettles to. We will see that trend sustain and increase.”

Among Chinese immigrants, for instance, Cottingham’s view holds. “A lot of immigrants come because they are sponsored by their families,’’ says Angela Wang, social services manager of the Chicago-based Chinese Mutual Aid Association, which recently opened a branch office in Westmont to help the rapidly growing Chinese population in Chicago’s western suburbs. “With the Chinese, a lot of them work in the high-tech industry and ... a lot of those jobs are out in the suburbs, so they move directly out there. Once they have gotten their families established, they’re bringing over their [extended] families, their parents, aunts and uncles. That’s basically how my family moved to the suburbs. Our family was the only Chinese family in the neighborhood for the longest time. But in the past five years, it seems like there’s one on every block.”

Indeed, suburbia is changing dramatically. Those with low skills have come primarily to manufacturing jobs in the Elgin-Carpentersville area, Aurora and St. Charles, and Waukegan and North Chicago. But better-educated immigrants are drawn to the wealth of high-tech jobs along Interstate 88, where Lucent and Tellabs, among others, have warmly embraced recent immigrants from India and other Asian countries.

“What happened on the Highway 88 belt is a lot of these new highly educated professionals took jobs at Motorola and Lucent and some other companies, which were located in that area, causing them to settle there,’’ says Rajinder Bedi, chief editor of Indian Reporter and World News, a Chicago-based weekly newspaper serving the Indian-American community. “Once the concentration increases in terms of people who are employed, they need to shop. And there comes the idea of opening grocery stores and restaurants, video stores, stores where they can get general merchandise, luggage, TVs.”

In the western suburbs, Dhawan and others like him can find plenty of Indian restaurants, Hindu temples and several movie screens that showcase the latest films from Mumbai (formerly Bombay) — all oddities just a couple of decades ago. What’s more, subdivisions where one Indian family might have lived in the past are now populated by multiple families with Indian roots.

And the change is bringing the kind of problems most often associated with big cities. Not everyone seeking out the suburbs comes as well-armed with education or decent-paying jobs. The Fund for Immigrants and Refugees report found that 8 percent of suburban noncitizens arriving in the 1990s were poor, almost double the rate for established suburbanites. Twenty-seven percent of immigrants in the suburbs lacked health insurance, triple the percentage of native suburbanites. Many new undocumented arrivals find it difficult to escape that cycle because they live in fear of deportation, leaving them ripe for abuse by unscrupulous employers and making them hesitant to report crimes against them to police, advocacy groups say.

“It is really hard to find someone who will give their story to a reporter because they’re in fear that immigration might seek them out,” says Monica Vasquez, an immigration consultant with the Spanish Center in Joliet, one of the few local resources in that suburb for immigrants and migrant workers. “We have asked individuals before whether they wanted to tell their story, and most do not. That fear is still there. It’s hard for them to be so trusting.”

Certainly, those who don’t grasp English have it the worst, whether they migrate to a city or the suburbs. New census data showed that 11 percent of Illinois households speak Spanish at home, compared to 7 percent in 1990. An informal survey last May by the Chicago Sun-Times found numerous civic and corporate institutions poorly equipped to handle Spanish-speaking callers seeking hours of operations or directions. Chicago’s Navy Pier, the Cubs and White Sox, the Naper Settlement in Naperville and even the newspaper’s own switchboard flunked the test.

“What the increase in numbers in the 1990s means are things like this,’’ says Cottingham of the Fund for Immigrants and Refugees. “On the positive side, we have a sense that Illinois is a crossroads of the world, and globalization that all of us think about is very present in our daily lives and neighborhoods. On the negative side, we have a whole set of systems that are highly stressed by the need to catch up with these very rapid demographic changes that are happening.

“Health care is a good example. Federal civil rights law requires health care providers to make their services available to people in the language that they speak. It’s a wonderful mandate and civil rights value. But there’s no funding to make that easier for providers to do that. With very few exceptions, health care systems are really struggling to catch up with this. It’s very evident in the suburbs and, I suspect, downstate, where there aren’t a lot of bilingual support people in the system,’’ Cottingham says.

Political influence has been slow to follow the rise in immigrants. They have yet to gain a strong voice in Springfield. A handful of minority lawmakers continue to propose legislation aimed at helping the state’s rising immigrant population, but it mostly languishes. One exception was the highly organized effort by Muslim groups in Chicago’s southwest suburbs to win passage of a law requiring food labeling standards for their faith. Lawmakers approved the measure last spring and the governor signed it over the summer. Other proposals — to license undocumented resident drivers, give Mexicans in-state rates on college tuition and make it easier for immigrants to report crime — stalled at the Statehouse, frustrating legislative sponsors.

“By punishing a group of people so large, we’ll end up hurting ourselves,’’ says state Rep. Susana Mendoza, a Chicago Democrat who helped draft legislation that would have allowed Mexicans to attend Illinois colleges at reduced cost. “We’re not contributing to a better-educated workforce. When people have a job and an opportunity of following their dreams or attaining their goals, crime and every other negative statistic will fall. But when no options are given, you end up hurting society overall.”

Most analysts say the dynamics driving immigrants to choose smaller towns and suburbs aren’t likely to change anytime soon, meaning more Illinois communities could experience double- and triple-digit percentage growth among foreign-born ethnic groups. If those population forecasts prove true, immigrant interests inevitably will become a higher priority as Hispanics and Asians get a greater voice at the state Capitol and within the state’s congressional delegation.

For now, they are helping to reshape northern, central and southern Illinois.

After four years of English classes in Fairmont City, Lamas has mastered the language well enough to carry on a fairly seamless conversation with a unilingual interviewer. Amazingly, he says he has never heard of the concept of the American Dream. Arguably, he is beginning to live it. While he still occasionally pines for his old neighborhood and friends in Mexico City, he knows he is far better off here. Why is Fairmont City preferable to his homeland? he is asked. “Everybody, the money, the opportunity you have to give your family something better,’’ he says. “These are the reasons we are here.’’

Dave McKinney is Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Illinois Issues, October 2001

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