Latino population leaving city for suburbs

Roundtable discussions held to help Latinos integrate into suburban life

Published: 11/19/2007 5:09 AM

The increase in the Chicago area's Latino population reflects a well-documented national trend.

But contrary to popular belief, new births -- not immigration -- account for most of the Latino growth in the six-county suburban region.

Every year, more and more Latinos make the suburbs home. As of 2006, 1.7 million Latinos, or 55 percent of the Chicago area's Latino population, lived in the suburbs.

Without the Latino growth, Illinois would have lost a congressional seat because of residents moving out of state in the past decade, according to a report released today and titled "Forging the Tools for Unity: A Report on Metro Chicago's Mayors Roundtables on Latino Integration."

The project is a collaboration between the Center for Metropolitan Chicago Initiatives of the University of Notre Dame's Institute for Latino Studies, and the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus.

Mayors, city council members, school personnel, faith leaders and Latino leaders from 19 suburbs, including Addison, Carpentersville, Libertyville, Mount Prospect, Roselle and Waukegan, took part in four roundtable meetings attended by 60 to 80 people each between March and June.

"Usually it's advocacy groups and university people talking about diversity, but this time it was everyone," said Addison Mayor Larry Hartwig, who chairs the mayors caucus Diversity Issues Task Force.

The goal was to figure out how to help Latinos integrate into the fabric of their suburban communities, said Sylvia Puente, director of the Center for Metropolitan Chicago Initiatives.

"We wanted to talk about what are the challenges, and what can we do about it," she said.

The report lists practical strategies to address challenges in the areas of public awareness, housing, education and social services.

Public education campaigns about the course of U.S. immigration could foster understanding of the challenges faced by Latino immigrants, whose turn-of-the-century counterparts didn't have to deal with visas or capped numbers to immigrate, the report says.

Spanish-speaking students best learn English through dual language programs, because literacy in one's native language is the basis for second-language acquisition, according to the report.

Ensuring affordable housing for low- to middle-income families and revisiting obsolete housing ordinances would allow large Latino families to be in compliance with local municipal codes, Puente said.

"We are not choosing to live in overcrowded housing," she said. "It's the economic reality."

But adding dollars to bilingual education drives up property taxes, which in turn makes housing less affordable, said Rosanna Pulido, former director of the Illinois Minuteman Project and now a field representative for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

"It is a moral outrage that we are being taxed to death for people who are coming here," said Pulido, who is of Mexican heritage. "My father learned English because he wanted to, on his own."

Housing rules should not be modified to accommodate immigrant families, who instead should adapt to living by existing laws, Pulido also said.

Social service agencies, schools and churches can be instrumental in helping Latino adults assimilate, according to the report, which cites the Palatine Opportunity Center in Palatine, plus St. Joseph Catholic Church and Addison Trail High School, both in Addison, as model examples.

But it's also up to local governments to take initiative, said Northlake Mayor Jeffrey Sherwin. Latinos account for about half of Northlake's 12,000 residents, and the city has sought the help of nearby Triton College to start ESL programs, in addition to hiring bilingual staff and translating its newsletter into Spanish, Sherwin said.

The city also bought and refurbished an 80-unit "rundown" apartment complex in August intended for affordable housing, he said.

"The sooner we have good integration, the sooner everybody will be happy," Sherwin said.