E.g., 04/25/2024
E.g., 04/25/2024
Chicago's Immigrants Break Old Patterns

Chicago's Immigrants Break Old Patterns

Chicago has one of the richest immigration histories among American cities. Already in 1870 immigrants made up a larger proportion of the city's population (48 percent) than any other place in North America. During an 80-year period between 1880 and 1960 the size of Chicago's foreign-born population was second only to that of New York City. Local immigration patterns unfolded in a manner parallel to those of the nation. Mid-19th century arrivals from Ireland and Germany were followed by large numbers of Russian Jews, Slavs, and Italians in the years 1880-1920. Since the immigration reforms of 1965, the city and its suburbs have attracted growing numbers of Asians and Latin Americans.

The Chicago region continues to have one of the largest and most diverse immigrant populations in the country. Among metropolitan areas, the number of Chicago-area immigrants ranks seventh in the nation, with 1.4 million immigrants who constitute 18 percent of the overall population.

Immigration has played a critical demographic role in metropolitan Chicago, having accounted for three-quarters of all population growth in the 1990s. In a recent two-year period 2000-2002, immigration added 113,000 persons to Cook County (home to Chicago) while the county experienced net out-migration of the native born.

When the results of the 2000 census were revealed, local pundits reveled in the fact that the city of Chicago had halted a population decline due to outmigration and low birth rates of the native born that had begun in 1950. Observers often noted the growth in the 1990s of middle-class residential developments in the downtown area. Lost in the analysis, however, was the reality that all of Chicago's net population growth over the last decade is attributable to immigration.

Researchers at the Institute for Metropolitan Affairs at Chicago's Roosevelt University recently analyzed the impact of immigration on the six-county metropolitan Chicago area (including Cook, DuPage, Kane, McHenry, and Will counties), analyzing census data reaching back to 1850, with a focus on the results of the 2000 census. Some of their principal findings can be found below.

Local Shifts Reveal Strong Increase in Mexican Immigration

The three largest foreign-born groups in metropolitan Chicago represent different world regions, including Mexico (582,028 persons), Poland (137,670), and India (76,931). These groups constitute 56 percent of all area immigrants. The remainder of the immigrant population is extremely diverse, with no group comprising more than five percent of the population.

In recent decades important shifts have occurred within the immigrant population with respect to the relative size of certain groups. Perhaps the most noteworthy change is a steady increase in the number of persons born in Mexico. While only 10 percent of the region's immigrants were from Mexico in 1960, by 2000 Mexican immigrants were 40 percent of the foreign-born population.

Other changes include substantial growth among the Indian-origin population, which doubled in the 1990s and surpassed Filipinos to become the largest Asian group in the area. Similarly, the 1990s saw persons from the former Soviet Union rise from the tenth to the fourth-largest immigrant group. The Chinese-origin population surpassed the Korean population to become the sixth largest foreign-born group. The 1990s also witnessed a sharp demographic decline in certain European-origin groups such as Germans and Italians, who are increasingly elderly and experiencing high mortality, and who no longer figure among the top immigrant groups in the region.

Chicago's North Side Holds Major Ports-of-Entry

A collection of census tracts on the far north side of Chicago are home to the largest newcomer populations in the entire metropolitan area. Five census tracts, all within a few miles of each other, each received more than 1,900 new immigrants in the five-year period 1995-2000. These newcomer areas have highly diverse populations including African, Asian, European, Latino, and Middle Eastern groups.

The ports-of-entry for new immigrants have expanded dramatically in number and location. As of 1990 some 23 census tracts in the region had received more than 1,000 immigrants in the previous five years, and only three were in the suburbs. By the year 2000 there were 47 such tracts, including 15 located outside the city.


For the first time in history, the 2000 census found more immigrants in the suburban portions of metropolitan Chicago (788,000 persons) than in the city of Chicago itself (629,000). Within the suburbs, the largest concentrations of immigrants are directly to the west of the city in places including Cicero, in a collection of suburbs in northwest Cook County near O'Hare Airport, and in concentrations around older satellite cities ringing the area: Waukegan, Elgin, Aurora and Joliet, Illinois. Cicero lies along a 125-year-old path of immigrant settlement stretching from the Chicago neighborhoods of Pilsen and South Lawndale. The outer suburbs have less connection to Chicago and are home to large numbers of immigrants who, as revealed by analysis of INS records, have immigrated directly to the suburbs, without living any time in the traditional immigrant settlement neighborhoods of the city.

The new suburban settlement patterns mean that many immigrants are living in areas that have little in the way of social-service infrastructure such as ethnic organizations, and indeed are often living in areas that were largely constructed since the Second World War. Some of these suburbs have admirable track records in interacting and incorporating immigrants. Examples include suburbs that have established community policing teams and health clinics within immigrant neighborhoods to work with newcomers. Other suburbs have less admirable records that included discriminatory municipal ordinances and selective enforcement of housing codes. This caused Chicago in the early 1990s to be home to three of five suburbs nationally that were sued by the Justice Department for discriminatory housing policies directed at Latinos: Cicero, Waukegan, and Addison in Illinois, along with Wildwood, New Jersey and Hatch, New Mexico. Some municipalities cooperate aggressively with federal immigration authorities, meaning that, for an undocumented immigrant driver, a traffic stop in one suburb may be more likely to lead to an encounter with immigration officials than in a neighboring suburb. (In the City of Chicago, a mayoral order passed by the late mayor Harold Washington bars police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities.)

Many of the relational difficulties between immigrants and local authorities involve the Latino, primary Mexican-origin population, many of whom are close to the older satellite cities. The northwestern Cook County suburbs, however, as well as communities in affluent DuPage County just west of Cook, are home to many immigrants of Asian and European origin, with household incomes often meeting or exceeding those of the white native-born. In these areas, such as Arlington Heights, Palatine, and Mt. Prospect, immigrant integration proceeds more quickly, with fewer incidents of tension reported in the news media.

Overall Immigrant Socioeconomic Status Improves

As the immigrant population has grown in the metropolitan area, observers may have an interest in the extent to which immigrants are integrating socially, civically, and economically. In the aggregate, census data show that foreign-born socioeconomic status clearly improved during the 1990s in the Chicago area. For example, the percentage of immigrants with a high-school degree rose from 57.3 percent to 61.7 percent. Immigrant household income grew from about $42,000 to $46,000 (adjusted for inflation), and their poverty rate fell from 13 to 12.1 percent.

Interpreting these gains, however, becomes a matter of viewing a glass as half empty or half full. With regard to each of these indicators of status, the native-born population – which began the decade with higher education and income levels and lower poverty levels than the foreign born – also made improvement in all these areas. Thus, while the immigrant social and economic position improved over the last 10 years, the gap between them and the native born remained largely the same.

Aggregate statistics on the foreign born, of course, obscure wide differences among national-origin groups. For example, 66 percent of Indian immigrants hold a college degree compared to only three percent of Mexican immigrants. Poverty rates range from 23.1 percent among persons from Bosnia and Herzegovina (many of whom are recent refugees) to only 2.2 percent among Filipinos. The Filipino median household is a remarkable $73,000 compared to $23,000 for Ukraine-born households (and $61,000 for white non-Latinos).

Naturalization is an important indicator of social and civic integration, as U.S. citizenship is the gateway to certain jobs and professional licenses and the ability to vote (as well as the ability to sponsor more rapid immigration of family members overseas). In the 1990s, however, the naturalization rate of Chicago-area immigrants fell from 44 percent in 1990 to 39 percent in 2000. This is due in part to the large scale of immigration, which brought many immigrants in recent years who have not yet completed the five-year waiting period prior to naturalization (some 45 percent of Chicago-area immigrants have arrived in the last decade). Many undocumented immigrants are also included in the census data; these individuals are of course ineligible to naturalize. Among the Mexican immigrants, however, naturalization rates actually held steady over the decade at 24 percent, a fact attributable partly to large-scale naturalization public education efforts, and reaction to both the perceived consequences of welfare reform and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Chicago maintains its legacy as a major destination for immigrants to the United States. Recent patterns suggest continued growth among Mexican immigrants and Indians, as well as high percentage growth among certain sub-Saharan African groups such as Nigerians and Ghanians (both of whom tripled their size in the 1990s). Demographic statistics such as these are a starting point for understanding the impact and dynamics of immigration. More investigation is needed into the extent to which the Chicago area, including its state and local governments, is successfully incorporating immigrants and maximizing their potential contributions to the region.

This article is based on the principal findings of the Metro Chicago Immigration Fact Book (http://www.roosevelt.edu/ima).