increasing number of families plot their route
to the American Dream by way of Illinois' suburbs and small towns
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.
32, supervises about 45 people at a produce company in St. Louis,
a good job in a place hed never live. Missouris 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 hasnt
been a murder in years and where there are more baptisms than in
any other Catholic parish in the Metro East region.
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,
isnt 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 Citys Hispanic
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.
City has undergone a jolting transformation, but its a transformation
thats 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
states 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. Theyre settling instead
in the smaller communities that dot the state from Metro East to
quality of life is better. Its 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 masters degree. From
there, he migrated with his wife to Aurora, west of Chicago, and
works as a software engineer at Lucent Technologies in Lisle.
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 Chicagos
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
seen a big surge in the immigrant population in the central city.
However, youll find an even greater amount scattered in the
suburbs, says Scott Deuel, a Chicago-based geographic coordinator
for the U.S. Census Bureau.
reasons for settlement patterns are consistent. Immigrants seek
out places where there are the most jobs, where its 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.
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,
its not big money, but its 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
arent locked, and the mayor compares his hometown of 2,436
residents to Mayberry.
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
City Mayor Alex Bregen, a lifelong resident and grandson of Czech
and Polish immigrants, doesnt 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
was culture shock. The [non-Hispanic] neighbors didnt 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.
hiring Hispanic police officers and adopting an open mind that didnt
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. Its been a challenge to us, but now its
to the point where neighbors are accepting neighbors. They are the
most helpful, hardworking people youve ever seen,
the mayor says of his Hispanic constituents. Its a whole
new birth to this community.
decade ago, Bregen says, he could name about 85 percent of the families
living in the towns 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. Its different. But
at the same time, its pretty much the same. Im very
proud of it.
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.
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, thats where the family resettles
to. We will see that trend sustain and increase.
Chinese immigrants, for instance, Cottinghams 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 Chicagos 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, theyre bringing
over their [extended] families, their parents, aunts and uncles.
Thats 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 theres one
on every block.
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.
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.
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. Whats more, subdivisions
where one Indian family might have lived in the past are now populated
by multiple families with Indian roots.
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.
is really hard to find someone who will give their story to a reporter
because theyre 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. Its hard for them to be so trusting.
those who dont 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. Chicagos Navy Pier, the Cubs and White Sox, the
Naper Settlement in Naperville and even the newspapers own
switchboard flunked the test.
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.
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. Its a wonderful mandate and civil
rights value. But theres 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. Its very evident
in the suburbs and, I suspect, downstate, where there arent
a lot of bilingual support people in the system, Cottingham
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 states
rising immigrant population, but it mostly languishes. One exception
was the highly organized effort by Muslim groups in Chicagos
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
punishing a group of people so large, well 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. Were 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.
analysts say the dynamics driving immigrants to choose smaller towns
and suburbs arent 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 states congressional delegation.
now, they are helping to reshape northern, central and southern
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
McKinney is Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Issues, October 2001
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