Adjustment: Latinos and the Suburbs Where They Settle Deal with a Changing Reality

Sep 1, 2011

As the leader of a nonprofit group that helps Latino families in western Lake County, Carolina Duque knows how difficult it can be for poor immigrants to live in the suburbs. The challenges start with the immigrants’ limited ability to speak English and their low levels of schooling. But what makes those problems worse are the barriers that prevent her clients from adapting to their new surroundings. 

Lately, for example, Duque ran into problems trying to get her clients to earn high school equivalency degrees. Her group, Mano a Mano Family Resource Center in Round Lake Park, works with the local community college to help students get those degrees, which can lead to better jobs. But a federal law prevents more of her clients from getting the right classes.

Most of Mano a Mano’s predominantly Mexican clients did not get far in school before they dropped out or moved to the United States. Many of them did not even make it to high school. But GED programs — even those taught in Spanish — require incoming students to start off with entry-level high school skills. Students who need to learn basic literacy and arithmetic must take Adult Basic Education classes first. But federal law prevents the basic classes, which are funded with state and federal money, from being taught in Spanish.

That requirement ties the hands of administrators at the College of Lake County, which offers Spanish GED classes with Mano a Mano. “I want to provide them (Mano a Mano) whatever I can, so they can spend their money on tutoring and mentoring, helping people get jobs and housing,” says Mary Charuhas, the community college’s dean of adult education. “But one area where I can’t help is literacy in Spanish.”

It is just one item on a long list of obstacles that make it harder for recent Latino immigrants and their children to fully integrate into American society. Unlike previous waves of immigrants, the current surge of new Hispanics is largely heading straight to the suburbs and bypassing traditional gateway cities like Chicago. That means that suburban schools, police, hospitals and elected officials are now grappling with issues that they have little experience dealing with.

“The suburbs are not necessarily as prepared as cities are to receive large numbers of immigrants,” says Mano a Mano’s Duque. The new suburban diversity is not just ethnic, it is economic. “The suburbs are now home to a wide variety of poor people,” write researchers from the Brookings Institute in Washington. “That includes foreign born and native born, all races, people who lack a high school degree as well as college graduates. The suburbanization of poverty is now a defining characteristic of the American metropolis. And it is accelerating.”

Cheap suburban housing is a major draw for the new arrivals, but often, affordable rents are found far from bus routes, schools with bilingual teachers and even the jobs that are drawing immigrants in the first place.

Hispanics now make up 15 percent of all Illinoisans. While the rest of the state’s population stagnated in the last decade, the size of the Latino population grew by half a million people, or a third. The rest of the state lost 86,000 people. Hispanics’ economic presence is growing, too. One estimate concluded that between 1990 and 2008, Hispanics increased their buying power in Illinois from $8.8 billion to $40.9 billion. In public school classrooms in the decade prior to 2008, the number of Latino students grew by 60 percent. The 2010 census showed that the Hispanic population grew in every corner of the state. Pulaski County in far southern Illinois was the only county where their numbers did not increase during the last decade. 

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 525,000 immigrants in Illinois — mostly from Mexico — are in the country illegally. But last decade, for the first time, immigration came in a distant second nationally as a cause for the growth of the Mexican-American population, behind births. The center estimated the nation saw 4.2 million new Mexican immigrants, compared with 7.2 million Mexican-American births.

In Illinois, three-quarters of the Hispanic growth in the 2000s came from the Chicago suburbs. The city of Chicago saw an uptick of 25,000 Hispanics in the last decade, according to the census. In the rest of Cook County and the collar counties, though, the Hispanic population increased by more than 375,000. Roughly three-fifths of Illinois Hispanics now live in the suburbs.

The demographic shift affects core functions of state and local governments. As a group, Illinois Hispanics are poorer than the general population. Their median income of $21,600 is below that of African-Americans and less than two-thirds that of whites. More than a quarter of Illinois Latinos have no health insurance, twice the rate of whites. Hispanics have lower levels of education, but because they often have bigger families, their kids make up an increasingly bigger share of the classrooms in the state. Newer immigrants, especially, often do not know English or the ins-and-outs of dealing with American hospitals, police and schools. The large presence of immigrants who are in the country illegally is an issue, not just for the unauthorized immigrants themselves, but also for their American children, spouses and friends.

The Round Lake area, where Mano a Mano is located, has seen a dramatic rise in the Latino population since the agency opened its doors in 2000. The Hispanic population in Round Lake Beach, for example, jumped by nearly 70 percent. Latinos now make up nearly half of the village’s residents. 

But Duque, Mano a Mano’s executive director, says Latino concerns are still not a top priority for many local leaders. Many wonder why they should “cater” to their new neighbors. When she asks what they are doing to address the needs of immigrants in the area, many simply highlight the work of her own group, a relatively small nonprofit with a budget of roughly $500,000. Forums at chamber of commerce events rarely address immigration, Duque says, and few Latino leaders get involved with local civic activities. “You know, institutions don’t adapt easily to demographic change,” she says. “Of course, there’s a lot of pressure on every institution in the community.”

At the College of Lake County, adapting means considering not just the type of classes offered but where they are held. The community college has greatly expanded the number of classes it offers in English as a second language, and two types of innovative classes attract many enthusiastic Latino students as well, says Charuhas. One program targets families, especially women staying home with their children. Teachers work simultaneously with young kids preparing for kindergarten and their parents preparing to rejoin the workforce. A separate initiative integrates GED classes with professional certifications in areas such as health, auto repair, office management and heating, ventilation and air conditioning repair. 

Even with several class locations throughout the county, though, making sure students can get to class is a major consideration. Poor families may either have no car or a single car that usually goes with the working parent. Plus, unauthorized immigrants cannot get driver’s licenses in Illinois (only New Mexico, Utah and Washington state permit them to drive). So the College of Lake County’s classes must be held on a bus route and, preferably, where people can walk to class, as well. “This is not a county that is good for transportation,” Charuhas says.

Even where transportation is better, distance is an obstacle. Michelle Meyer, executive director of Mutual Ground, which serves victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, points out that her organization covers much more geographic territory than just its home city of Aurora, a common situation for suburban nonprofits. While Pace bus service may serve Aurora well, there is no public transportation in several other areas of Kane and Kendall counties where other Mutual Ground clients live. 

The distance between Mutual Ground and other service providers can be a problem, too. For example, Meyer says, federal law allows many victims of domestic abuse to get immigration relief to encourage them to report crimes. The problem, Meyer says, is that almost all the immigration lawyers who handle those cases work in Chicago, which can be a long haul from Kane or Kendall counties without a car. 

Closer to home, just getting an order of protection at the courthouse can be a daunting task. Court interpreters are in short supply. “Without an advocate, a person who speaks Spanish only would have a lot of difficulty going through that process,” Meyer says. “It’s extremely important for them to come to Mutual Ground to get our court advocacy services because the order of protection paperwork is in English. Most of the attorneys speak only English. Most of the judges speak only English.”

This spring, Gov. Pat Quinn announced he was withdrawing the state of Illinois from the federal Secure Communities program, which screens criminal suspects for immigration offenses. Quinn said the program caught too many low-level offenders and prevented police from earning the trust of victims and witnesses. The federal government later said states cannot withdraw from the program. 

Fear of deportation prevents many domestic abuse and assault victims from coming forward, Meyer says, even if the one who could be deported is the person they are accusing of abuse. While that may sound strange, she explains, the abuser is often the woman’s only source of income and the father of her children. 

Another big problem for nonprofits serving Latino clients is the difficulty of keeping bilingual staff. Talented workers are often lured away by other nonprofits or by private companies that need people who can speak both English and Spanish. It’s even harder to keep those employees because Illinois state government, which pays for many of the services the nonprofits offer, is often as much as six months behind on the bills. 

Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum in Chicago (and an Illinois Issues Advisory Board member), argues that years of level state funding for social programs that serve Hispanics actually amounts to a cut because it comes at a time when the need among Latinos has increased with their numbers. But with the state’s finances in shambles, neither Puente nor anyone else contacted for this article expected much relief for service providers anytime soon.

These days, few human service providers are getting what they need to operate, and lawmakers are not thinking at a strategic level about how to allocate state money, says Judith Gethner, director of Illinois Partners for Human Service, an umbrella group of providers. Latino groups are rightfully upset, but so, too, are groups that serve the disabled or the addicted. “You have groups that are trying to be heard,” Gethner says, “at a time when the noise level is just at an outrageous decibel level.”

Still, there are many areas where Latinos do not receive the state resources their population numbers would suggest. That is true for state legislative seats, state employees and state contracts. One of the thorny issues for Hispanic leaders, though, is that it is often their political allies who control those resources.

Take legislative redistricting, which determines in large part how many General Assembly seats are controlled by Hispanic voters. A coalition of Latino groups determined that by population alone, Hispanics should have 28 state House and Senate districts. In reality, though, mapmakers could not create that many districts that would be roughly two-thirds Hispanic, because the population is too spread out. The best case scenario, the coalition decided, would be 13 Hispanic-controlled districts. The Democratic map signed by the governor, though, barely had half that many. In addition to the seven Latino districts, the plan also has a handful where Latinos made up a majority of the population but not by the decisive margins that mapmakers use to give an ethnic group control.

The coalition offered muted praise for the map, noting that it included more Hispanic districts than the current plan. Some civil rights groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, opposed the map, but it is unclear whether they would go to court to fight it (MALDEF did not return calls seeking comment). Republican legislative leaders sued to block the map, claiming, among other things, that it was unfair to Hispanic voters, but, as of this writing, no Latino groups have joined the effort.

When it comes to state workers, Hispanics are underrepresented, too. The number of Hispanic state employees was just under 4.5 percent at the end of 2010, compared with 16 percent of the state’s population at large. (African-Americans, by comparison, held 21 percent of state jobs and comprise 15 percent of the population.) Furthermore, according to the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, the number of bilingual state workers is even smaller. They make up 2.5 percent of state employees, and half of them work for the Department of Human Services. 

The low number of bilingual employees means those staffers have significantly higher caseloads than their colleagues — and their clients must wait longer, Puente argues. Plus, not having Hispanics in state government means fewer people will speak up if a proposal would disproportionately affect Latinos, such as closing a state office in a Hispanic neighborhood. “If we don’t have people who understand Latinos sitting in every state agency and in the governor’s office,” she says, “it doesn’t help us close those disparities.”

But Addison Mayor Larry Hartwig, who has worked with Puente on many issues, stresses the need for building unity among groups. In Addison, which is 40 percent Hispanic, summer concerts feature music from not only Mexico but also from Poland, Italy and India. The local high school has worked hard to engage Hispanic parents by offering child care and transportation to Saturday morning meetings, says Hartwig, a former principal. But the efforts also included combining the Hispanic parents’ group with one run predominantly by white parents. 

In the late 1990s, early in Hartwig’s tenure as mayor, Addison settled a lawsuit brought by the federal government charging that a neighborhood revitalization effort for a residential area was really a way to clear out the Mexican-Americans who were settling in the area. Hartwig argues that fights such as that built resentment between long-time residents and the growing Hispanic population. “That’s exactly what I’ve heard: Why are we catering to them?” he says. “Well, we are trying to help them become part of us rather than having them living separately from us.”

Although he says there is still a long way to go, Hartwig says the efforts have started to pay off. A few years ago, a man told the mayor he had just moved his family from a nearby suburb to Addison because he wanted his children to live in a diverse community and meet students from different backgrounds in school. “That’s the world we’re living in,” Hartwig recalls the man saying. He adds, “I guess that’s what I’m hoping we eventually get to.”

Daniel C. Vock is a reporter for the Washington, D.C.-based


 In Illinois, three-quarters of the Hispanic growth in the 2000s came from the Chicago suburbs. ... Roughly three-fifths of Illinois Hispanics now live in the suburbs.


Illinois Issues, September 2011