Civic Validation: Illinois is once again a land of immigrants

May 1, 2004

Alejandro Cortes needs to drive to work, take his 2-year-old daughter to daycare and buy groceries. But Cortes, a 33-year-old undocumented Mexican immigrant, doesn’t have a driver’s license. To make matters worse, there’s no public transportation in the northwest suburban town where he lives. So he drives, as he’s done for the past three years he’s lived here, without the state’s permission. 

“We don’t want to be in trouble with the authorities,” he says in Spanish. “There’s a lot of drunks who can cause accidents. It worries me for my family.”

Illinois lawmakers had a lengthy debate over a state proposal to allow undocumented immigrants like Cortes to obtain licenses without a Social Security number. 

The measure failed in a House vote last month, but backers vowed to continue the push. 

Licenses for undocumented residents are an important issue for Latinos — especially in a state where there are about 432,000 undocumented immigrants, most of them Mexican, according to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. This is just one of many accommodations proponents say would help fold an ever-growing Latino population into the civic life of this state and the nation. Efforts to extend to undocumented Illinoisans access to such services as banking and higher education, they argue, are more critical as the state’s Latino population swells. 

Of 12.5 million Illinois residents, 12 percent are Latino, mirroring the national average, according to U.S. Census data. But this Latino population, which extends throughout the state, faces different needs in different regions.

In Champaign County, for instance, just 3 percent of 180,000 residents are Latino, but they make up the fastest-growing segment in that east central county. “We don’t have organizations in Champaign-Urbana that are Latino-based organizations,” says Giraldo Rosales, a city council member in Champaign. A 19-year resident, he’s a Cuban immigrant and actively involved in the Latino community. 

An analysis of that community led to creation of the Latino Partnership, a group Rosales now heads that will coordinate services for Latinos. When the analysis was completed, “a lot of people said the invisible has become visible,” he says. “They’re driving bikes, picking strawberries, detasseling corn — doing a lot of odd jobs throughout the community. This report said, ‘This is who we are.’”

Previously, Rosales says, there was a misconception about Latinos in that community. “They thought we didn’t have any issues,” he says. “They thought we came here illegally, we didn’t pay any taxes, that we all had switchblades in our pockets and that we’re all lowlifes.”

Part of the Latino community is hiding, he says. So many don’t participate in the system. “There’s a mystery group. How can you win their confidence to see what their needs are and serve them?”

In fact, throughout the state, local service providers are working to find and meet the needs of Illinois’ immigrant residents. The demand is particularly great in the suburbs, where the Latino immigrant population more than doubled between 1990 and 2000, census data shows. There are 582,000 Mexican immigrants living in the suburbs, and that number is expected to continue to rise. 

“The numbers just dwarf other groups,” says researcher Rob Paral, who co-wrote The Metro Chicago Immigration Fact Book in 2003. That report analyzes the impact of immigrants in Chicago’s suburbs. “When you hear stories of either lack of services or a group that’s isolated, nine times out of 10 you’re talking about Mexican immigrants.”

Service providers are trying to keep up, Paral says. “I would say the picture to date would be described as ad hoc. It’s very patchwork,” Paral says. “You’ll find a really good person at some institution, church or hospital who reaches out to the community. It’s been sort of hit or miss.” The suburbs, he says, are still lagging. 

“It’s different from the city of Chicago,” says Paral, a researcher for Roosevelt University’s Institute for Metropolitan Affairs. “You at least have some institutional efforts that reach across the neighborhoods and give services to people. The suburbs are growing quite quickly, and we know the suburbs, more than the city, are a destination.”

Meanwhile, private industry — financial institutions in particular — are beginning to take Latinos into account. In 2001, Midwestern banks began allowing Mexicans to use consular matricula, an identification card, to open up bank accounts. 

The goal was to “get Mexican immigrants to get into the banking system, not just to open up a bank account, but to get a mortgage loan and become part of the mainstream,” says Michael Frias, community affairs officer for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The FDIC supervises and insures banks.

“I get calls from banks now in the suburbs and in rural areas throughout the Midwest because communities are changing overnight, and banks are looking for ways to serve this community,” he says. “Unfortunately, many times they don’t because they’re not aware of the market.” Further, he says, a high percentage of Mexicans still don’t use banks because they keep cash at home or deal with currency exchanges and payday lenders.

Still, there are probably about 86 banks in the Midwest that accept alternate forms of identification for those who want to enter the financial system, he says.

“This is a large, untapped market,” he says. “It’s the fastest growing market in the country. The buying power is tremendous. It’s a very loyal customer base. This is a market that tends to operate in a cash economy. Immigrants tend to choose financial institutions based on recommendations or word of mouth, and those are important things banks need to know as they target this market.”

Banking institutions and service providers don’t require proof of legal residency. Government does. So for state and federal policy-makers, assisting undocumented Spanish-speaking residents is more complicated. Nonetheless, lawmakers at the federal and state levels are considering measures that would help fold undocumented immigrants into society. 

One federal proposal, for instance, would allow teens who came to this country illegally before they were 16 years old to earn residency if they go to college or serve in the military. The proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, dubbed DREAM, would encourage those who have lived in the United States for five years to continue their education at a time when there’s a high dropout rate for Latinos. 

Each year, it would allow 60,000 teens who graduate from high school to pursue their education, says Marissa Graciosa, a spokeswoman with the Chicago-based Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “The DREAM Act would give students a clear path to citizenship,” Graciosa says. “It would say to them, ‘OK, you’ve worked hard.’ It opens up the path, at least for students who have been here undocumented, to become citizens, work legally and have that voice.”

Proponents believe this and other proposals are aimed at giving immigrants a chance to make a greater economic and social contribution. Education means a better job. Those who work pay taxes. Those who bank pay fees. And driver’s licenses would require immigrants to get insurance and learn the rules of the road. 

Cortes, for example, has been unable to resolve a speeding ticket he got recently because he doesn’t understand where to send the payment for his ticket or where to go to court. And he’s already been stopped multiple times for driving without a license and insurance.

The only way to participate in the community is to drive, says Carlos Acosta, president of the McHenry County Latino Coalition, which is based in a rural county. “There is no mass transit,” he says. “You have to drive to do anything. Sprawl is everywhere. Urban planning is focused around the automobile, not walking. So you need to have a license.”

It “proves that you’re here, that you exist in the state,” he says. “It validates you as a person in many ways.” 


Veronica Gonzalez is a reporter for the Daily Herald and its sister publication Reflejos Bilingual Journal.

Click here to go to spanish version of this article.

Illinois Issues, May 2004