Immigrant Chicago

Immigrant rally

March 10, 2006: some 100,000 people march to Federal Plaza in support of immigrant rights. Image: Joseph Vorves (CC by/nc/sa)

By Steve Franklin

Chicago is the world. But don’t take my word for it.

Explore the city and you will discover restaurants, social services, museums, and houses of worship that bind Chicago to places across the globe.

The author:

Steve Franklin is an award-winning journalist and former labor writer and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He covered the Middle East for the Tribune as a bureau chief and on numerous assignments in the region. He currently manages the Ethnic Media Project at Community Media Workshop.

You may think you are tuning in on a short-wave radio if you visit some neighborhoods flourishing with newly arrived immigrants. Chicago’s public schools count over 100 foreign languages spoken by their students, with Spanish leading the pack by a wide margin.

What makes Chicago different?

In most major U.S. cities there are one or two immigrant corridors. In Chicago there are three major corridors with branches reaching out from them, along with a number of smaller communities reflecting other nationalities.

The heart of Latino Chicago is found in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods on the city’s Southwest Side. But smaller Latino neighborhoods sprawl across the city and region. Altogether Latinos account for nearly 30 percent of Chicago’s residents, with a total of over 1.8 million Latinos in Chicago and its suburbs. Mexicans make up the bulk of the area’s Latino population, followed by Central Americans and smaller numbers of South Americans.

Rally crowd

Immigrant rights rally, Federal Plaza, 2006. Image: Joseph Voves (CC by/nc/sa)

On Chicago’s Northwest Side and spiraling north and south is the Eastern European corridor. Poles account for the vast majority of this community. It is said with pride that Chicago is second city only to Warsaw in the size of its Polish population. But there are also significant numbers of Serbs, Rumanians, Lithuanians, Russians, Bulgarians, Slovenians, and Croats.Visit the third corridor, Devon Avenue on Chicago’s North Side, and you will discover a bustling commercial street that stitches together a rapidly growing Indian, Pakistani and South Asian community. As is true for other immigrant communities, Devon Avenue has become the anchor – a place to shop and dine – while many immigrants are leapfrogging the city to plant their roots in nearby suburbs.

Narrowing your focus you will find a thriving Chinatown just below Chicago’s Loop and a second, newer Chinatown on Chicago’s North Side that includes a mixture of Vietnamese, Thai and other Asian communities. Similarly, you will find Arab communities on the North and South Sides of the city. Lately African immigrants have begun to stake out their own place on Chicago’s North Side, but pockets exist on the South Side as well.

German emigrants

Germans boarding a steamer for the United States. Published in Harper’s Weekly, November 7, 1874. (Image: Wikipedia)

Why did they come here?

They came here because there was work and there were others like them. That was the pattern more than 100 years ago and it has not changed. But U.S. immigration law, which historically favored immigrants from Western Europe, changed in the 1960s, opening the nation’s doors to the entire world, and that has had an impact on Chicago. This change explains the mushrooming Muslim population in the Chicago area, with over 200 large and small mosques where over 40 languages are spoken. “When we have meetings, it’s like a small UN,” said Ahlam Jabari of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago.

Sanjay Jha, CEO of Motorola Mobility. Image: myscte (CC by/nc/sa)

The quest for skilled professionals brought another shift. Immigrants reportedly account today for nearly one-third of the physicians in Chicago. Immigrants with high-tech skills found a welcome here, and that helped expand the South Asian population. Indeed, many Chicago-area companies have reaped great rewards from their foreign-born workers and leaders. One of these business leaders is Sanjay Jha, who was born in Bihar, India, and rose to become chairman and chief executive officer of Motorola Mobility.

Warfare and economic crises around the globe have also sent many here. They were welcomed by groups offering them haven or by kinsmen offering solace. A sanctuary movement, led by religious groups, sprang up to help immigrants fleeing upheaval in Central America in the 1970s and ’80s. Assyrians, who first settled here in the late 19th century, have welcomed waves of Iraqi Christian immigrants. So, too, Bosnian refugees sought shelter among one of the largest Bosnian communities in the U.S.

Newly arrived immigrants have repeatedly started new lives here with help from fellow countrymen. In a parallel effort, Mexican immigrants have looked homeward and set up mutual aid organizations to help the places they came from. This has inspired the Coalition of African, Arab, Asian, European and Latino Immigrants of Illinois, a group that represents many smaller immigrant communities, to urge other immigrants to do the same.

(The video above part of The New Americans, produced by Chicago’s Kartemquin Films.)

What has been their impact on Chicago?

Culturally, immigration has been powerful. On warm weekend nights, Chicago comes alive with various ethnic street fairs. But all year round, Chicago has a wide assortment of museums marking residents’ global roots. It has the nation’s only Mexican fine arts museum and the only Cambodian museum outside of Cambodia, says Rebecca Sanders, head of the Chicago Cultural Alliance. Her group, she adds, is like no other in the world. It represents 25 museums, most of which are immigrant-linked. They range from a vast building that celebrates Irish culture to a virtual museum that takes you on a tour of Chicago’s Indian community.

Immigrants add much economic vitality to the city, region, and state. Immigrant workers are replacing the aging native-born workforce, with immigrants filling substantial proportions of both high-skill and low-skill jobs. Immigrant purchasing power has grown tremendously in recent years – consumer spending by Latinos and Asians grew 350 percent, or over $66 billion, between 1990 and 2005, according to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights – and is responsible for generating tens of thousands of jobs. And immigrants build businesses that fuel growth, from corner stores to new engineering and technology companies.

Immigrants have had a powerful impact politically. When Mexican-Americans and others rose up in 2006 to call for reforms of the nation’s immigration policy, a 100,000-person rally in Chicago was the first of many across the nation. Chicago’s City Council in 2006 voted to bar police and city workers from asking immigrants about their legal status in the U.S., a step matched by other big cities responding to broadening federal arrests of immigrants illegally in the country.

In 2005 Illinois launched the nation’s first statewide effort to integrate immigrants. ICIRR administers the state’s New Americans Initiative, putting outreach workers in ethnic groups to help with citizenship applications and voter registration. In 2012, soon after Rahm Emanuel’s election as mayor, the city set up the Office of New Americans. “The mayor has set a goal of making Chicago the most immigrant friendly city in the world,” boasts Adolfo Hernandez, a Latino community activist who heads the office.

Baha’i House of Worship, Wilmette, Illinois. Image: (CC by/nc)

What does this tell us about immigrants in the United States?

There’s a theory that America is a melting pot for immigrants. As they find roots here, they shed their distinctions for a new identity. But that’s not exactly what’s happened here, and sociologist Anthony Orum says it’s not a problem.

“The ties to ethnic backgrounds for many immigrants are very important, and they are sustained,” he says.

But don’t take my word for it. Go see for yourself.

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