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Immigration, Refugee Resettlement and Rogers Park – Part Three


Two Centuries of Immigration to Chicago – Past, Present and Future

Immigration, Refugee Resettlement and Rogers Park – Part Three

Introduction: Chicago – City of Immigrants

Chicago has always been a city of immigrants. And few places in the metro area have played a more important role in the lives of immigrants and refugees than Rogers Park. But, in recent years, and notably since the onset of the Great Recession, Chicago’s status as a Gateway City and primary destination for immigrants and refugees has slipped. This is largely due to the region’s lackluster economic recovery. 

But it is also due to changing American attitudes about immigration and increasing hostility to new arrivals. For the past several decades, Latin America and especially Mexico have been the most important sources of immigration to Chicago. As the United States government has clamped down on our southern border and ramped up efforts to deport undocumented immigrants, Chicago has seen a decline in immigration to the region.

If immigration and refugee resettlement continue to decline in the Chicago area, the impact on Rogers Park will be profound and the character of the neighborhood will change in fundamental ways.

Perhaps this would matter less if Chicago were attracting, or at least retaining, native-born Americans. In fact, Chicago is losing native-born Americans at an accelerating rate. The in-migration of foreign-born people used to provide a larger offset to these losses. But now, we are losing more native-born Americans at the same time that fewer foreign-born people are coming to take their place. If this continues over the medium to long-term, the impact on our economy will be deeply felt, and not in a good way.

The situation in Rogers Park is more complex, and predicting the future is harder. But one thing is certain. Rogers Park has large and diverse immigrant and refugee populations. If immigration and refugee resettlement continue to decline in the Chicago area, the impact on Rogers Park will be profound and the character of the neighborhood will change in fundamental ways.


History of Immigration in Chicago

To fully appreciate the impact immigrants have made in Chicago, you really have to go all the way back to the city’s founding.  During the one-hundred or so years between the city’s founding in 1833 and the Market Crash of 1929, a swampy marsh at the edge of Lake Michigan in the middle of a vast and mostly open continent was transformed into one of the world’s great cities with a population of more than three million people. How did this happen, and where did all these people come from? 

Let’s be blunt. Chicago did not become the great city it is today because of the region’s natural beauty, excellent weather or abundance of natural resources. Chicago exists because of the central role it played in the transformation of the national economy from a frontier backwater into the world’s most powerful nation.

In his excellent book, Nature’s Metropolis, William Cronon lays out the convergence of industries that so thoroughly transformed this tiny sliver of the Illinois prairie into the metropolis we know today. Chicago’s emergence as railroad Mecca of the United States is well known. But many other industries all propelled Chicago into the mercantile powerhouse that it became. 

This economic explosion that marked Chicago’s first century of existence could never have happened without an equally rapid increase in the labor force. Given the still relatively small population of the United States in the mid-19th Century, much of this labor had to come from abroad. Cronon says that, in 1850, 12.5% of the population of Illinois was foreign-born; in Cook County, the foreign-born population was 50% of which the large majority lived in Chicago proper.

Indeed, throughout the early 20th Century, the percentage of foreign-born to native-born Chicagoans remained high. A recent study by Rob Paral of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, entitled “Looking Back to Look Forward,” finds that in 1920, foreign-born residents made up more than a third of the population of Chicago.

These new restrictions on immigration are expected to hit Chicago especially hard.  

But something happened during the early years of the 20th Century – something that will sound very familiar to modern ears. The native-born population of the country began to turn against immigrants, particularly those from areas deemed less “desirable.” In early 20th Century America, that animus was aimed largely at southern and eastern Europeans and particularly at Italians and Jews. This change in attitude translated to a series of new laws that had the cumulative effect of greatly reducing the number of immigrants the country would admit. This legislation culminated in the Immigration Act of 1924 (a/k/a the Johnson-Reed Act) which effectively barred immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe.

After 1924, there was an immediate and dramatic reduction in the number of immigrants to the United States. The onset of the Great Depression further suppressed immigration as the country suffered through the worst depression in our history.

In Chicago, the percentage of foreign-born residents declined each decade from 1920 to 1970 – 25% in 1930; 20% in 1940; 15% in 1950; 12% in 1960; and 11% in 1970. While the city’s overall population continued to grow through 1950, it has declined almost continuously ever since. An important factor in this decline was the reduction in immigration brought on by laws enacted decades earlier.

... the Chicago region has significantly lost ground as a gateway city for new immigrants.

Eventually, the anti-immigrant sentiments of the 1910s and 1920s subsided. In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act reversed many of the earlier restrictions and opened up a new era of immigration to the United States. Unlike earlier waves of immigrants who mostly came from Europe, immigration after 1965 was truly a global movement. Large numbers of people began moving to the United States from Latin America, Asia and Africa. Immigration from Europe continued, but made up a smaller percentage of the total.

With this reversal of policy, Chicago began to see its foreign-born population rebound. According to the Paral report, just under 200,000 people immigrated to Chicago between the 1970 and 2015. During this same period of time, just under 850,000 native-born people left Chicago for other places.

But, once again, the national mood is changing. Immigration has re-emerged as a political issue and is part of the reason why Donald Trump was elected president. The growing national backlash against immigrants has led to new and proposed policy changes that will both restrict legal immigration and increase deportations of undocumented immigrants currently living here.

These new restrictions on immigration are expected to hit Chicago especially hard. In fact, this is already happening. A Brookings report by William H. Frey, entitled “U.S. Immigration Levels Continue to Fuel Most Community Demographic Gains,” finds that the Chicago region has significantly lost ground as a gateway city for new immigrants.  

According to the Brookings study, Chicago ranked fourth among large U.S. metropolitan areas as a destination for immigrants in the 1990s and 2000s, trailing only New York, Los Angeles and Miami. Since 2010, the Chicago region has become much less attractive to international migrants. Between 2010 and 2016, Chicago saw a net gain of 148,505 international migrants, still behind NY, LA and Miami, but now also behind Houston, Washington DC, Boston and San Francisco. Over this same period, Chicago saw a net loss of 409,167 native-born residents. 

These statistics go a long way to explaining why both Chicago and Cook County have started losing population in recent years. If immigration is further restricted, as seems likely under the current administration, continued economic and demographic stagnation could be the future for both the city and the region.

World Refugee Day


Focus on Rogers Park

Just as Chicago is one of the nation’s most important gateway cities, so Rogers Park is one of Chicago’s most important gateway neighborhoods. All Chicago neighborhoods have welcomed new immigrants at different points in their history. But, in recent decades, Rogers Park and other far North Side communities have become the destinations of choice for a diverse group of new arrivals from around the world.

Rogers Park (and to a lesser extent Edgewater and Uptown) is unique among Chicago neighborhoods with large foreign-born populations. Other neighborhoods have attracted specific immigrant groups – think Mexicans to Little Village or Poles to the Northwest Side. But Rogers Park stands out for the sheer diversity and breadth of the immigrant groups who have settled here. Immigrants to Rogers Park come literally from across the globe. Rogers Park is also the primary destination within the city of Chicago for refugees who are almost always fleeing famine, oppression or war and sometimes all three.

Just as Chicago is one of the nation’s most important gateway cities, so Rogers Park is one of Chicago’s most important gateway neighborhoods.

A prime example of the impact that immigrants and refugees have had on the Rogers Park community can be found in its public schools. Sullivan High School is the stand-out example. The Rogers Park Builders Group knows Sullivan High School well and has worked closely with Principal Chad Adams on a variety of projects to strengthen the school and help its students.

Chicago Magazine recently ran a long article on Sullivan High School, entitled “Welcome to Refugee High” (June 6, 2017). The article highlights the incredible diversity of the Sullivan student-body – a virtual United Nations of cultures and languages – all under one roof. 

The statistics for Sullivan are eye-popping, but also revealing about the demographics of the larger neighborhood. Forty-five percent of Sullivan students are foreign-born from 38 countries speaking 35 languages. At the time the article was written, 89 refugee students were enrolled at Sullivan out of a total school population of 641. These 89 enrollees represented an almost three-fold increase over refugee enrollment through the same period the year before. Forty percent of Sullivan students are enrolled in ESL (English as a second language) classes. After English and Spanish, the third most widely spoken language at Sullivan is Swahili. New refugee and immigrant students show up at the school almost every week. Sullivan by a wide measure takes in more refugee students than any other high school in the city of Chicago.

Rogers Park stands out for the sheer diversity and breadth of the immigrant groups who have settled here. Immigrants to Rogers Park come literally from across the globe.

The school has a long history of taking in immigrants. When it opened in 1923, classrooms were filled with Irish and German students who had recently arrived with their families in Rogers Park. But, by the time Principal Chad Adams arrived in 2013, the school was in steep decline with a falling enrollment and a Level 3 rating, the lowest in the CPA system.

Since 2013, the school has experienced tremendous improvements by almost every measure. This improvement is partly due to the school’s success in attracting and integrating a diverse group of immigrant and refugee students into its student body. Enrollment has gone up and the school is now rated a 2-plus. Principal Adams believes a Level 1 rating is within reach. 

Earlier in 2017, Sullivan was selected by CPS to be Chicago’s first “newcomer center.” This designation is a recognition of how central the school has become to the immigrant and refugee population of Chicago. It could also bring in additional federal funding, perhaps in the range of $300,000, to assist refugee students in the many challenges they face as they integrate into American society. Learning English is just one of the many challenges these students face as they learn to adapt to their new city. Ultimately, Sullivan is tasked with no less a responsibility than teaching these students how to be American and how to succeed in American society.

Chicago and the region simply have not recovered from the Great Recession of 2008-2009 as well as the country overall, or other large, US metro areas.


Current Trends

The contrast between Chicago’s history as an immigrant city and the reality on the ground today is stark. Chicago is losing out to other American cities as a port of entry. These declines are occurring as increasing numbers of native-born people are leaving Chicago for other states. This combination of demographic trends helps explain why both the city and the region have experienced net population losses for the past three years. While these population losses are small in absolute numbers or as a percentage of the total, it is also true that Chicago is the only one of the ten largest metro areas in the country to be losing population. Clearly, something has gone wrong in Chicago that has not in other places, or at least not to the same extent.

There are two primary reasons why Chicago is seeing less immigration in recent years. The first and most important is the economy. Chicago and the region simply have not recovered from the Great Recession of 2008-2009 as well as the country overall, or other large, US metro areas. The Chicago region has recovered at about half the rate of the country overall, and has the lowest rate of job growth of the top-ten metro areas.

But Chicago’s lackluster economy is not the only reason why we are under-performing. Changing social attitudes and government policies toward immigration also explain why Chicago has declined as a gateway city. This shift in attitudes by native-born Americans toward immigrants has been occurring for several decades. Hostility toward immigrants increased during the Great Recession when many people lost their jobs and immigrants made a convenient scapegoat for their frustrations. But even as immigration has slowed since the end of the recession, resentment of immigrants has only seemed to grow. The culmination of this change in sentiment was the election of Donald Trump as President; Trump took an overtly anti-immigrant stance in his campaign and has continued his efforts to reduce immigration and refugee resettlement to the United States since becoming President.

For the current fiscal year (through Sept. 30, 2018), there are likely to be just 15,000 refugees admitted to the United States. This is 14% of the 2016 total.

Anti-immigrant sentiment in the US has been especially directed towards Latin Americans. The past three administrations – under Bush, Obama and Trump – all made increased border security a priority. As a result of these measures, and the severe economic downtown a decade ago, immigration from Latin America has fallen precipitously. Immigration from Mexico is currently essentially zero with as many Mexicans returning to Mexico as coming to the United States. Yet the animus toward Mexico and Latin America more generally continues. 

Chicago had been a particularly popular destination for Mexican and other Latin American immigrants, both documented and undocumented. As immigration from these areas has fallen, Chicago has seen a steeper drop in immigration than coastal cities that saw more immigration from other parts of the globe.

While immigration has become more difficult over several recent administrations in Washington, both Democratic and Republican, the current administration has been especially unfriendly toward immigrants and refugees. In the fiscal year ending September 30, 2016, the Obama administration capped refugee resettlement in the United States at 110,000, and admitted 109,000 refugees to the United States.  This cap was even higher under Republican President Ronald Reagan when it stood at 140,000. Upon taking office, President Trump announced his intention to reduce the cap to 55,000, and later 45,000 refugees, less than half the total under Obama. Through September 30, 2017, the actual number of refugees resettled in this country was just under 54,000, many of whom came in before Trump took office. For the current fiscal year (through Sept. 30, 2018), there are likely to be just 15,000 refugees admitted to the United States. This is 14% of the 2016 total.

While refugee resettlement has plummeted, the plight of refugees across the world has only grown. According to RefugeeOne, there were 22.5 million refugees worldwide in 2016, of which 1.2 million need “urgent” resettlement. The 15,000 refugees who are anticipated to be resettled in fiscal year 2018 represent a tiny fraction of this population. Worse, 30,000 refugees who have already been approved for resettlement in the United States will be left in legal limbo. 

Local refugee resettlement agencies have also suffered under the new directives coming from Washington. RefugeeOne, Chicago’s largest resettlement agency, has traditionally resettled 400 to 450 people annually, but hit an all-time high of 844 refugees in 2016. In 2018, they had planned to resettle 450 refugees, but now fear that this number could be much lower. 

Undocumented immigrants currently living in Rogers Park, and across the country for that matter, live in increasing fear of deportation.

Not only has the US government dramatically slowed the intake of refugees, they have systematically begun to dismantle the infrastructure in place to process and resettle these new arrivals. The State Department is “encouraging” the consolidation of resettlement agencies and has stated that any resettlement agency that does not process at least 100 refugees in a single year will no longer be able to qualify as an approved resettlement agency. This is exactly what is now happening to HIAS, another Chicago-area social services agency that offered refugee resettlement services. With decision of the State Department to withdraw its support from HIAS, the organization announced that they would have no choice but to discontinue their refugee resettlement services in Chicago. 

These policy changes will have a direct impact on Rogers Park. If they continue, we can anticipate many fewer immigrants and refugees coming to the neighborhood. Undocumented immigrants currently living in Rogers Park, and across the country for that matter, live in increasing fear of deportation. As a result, they are avoiding contact with law enforcement officials and are increasingly living in the shadows of society. The Economist magazine (“Rhetoric and Reality” December 16, 2017) reports that deportations have actually decreased under the Trump administration; however, this is largely due to the near closing of the southern border. Meanwhile, deportation of undocumented immigrants living inside the United States has increased 25% over the previous administration. This deportation activity is no longer targeted to those who have committed serious crimes. Under the Trump administration, anyone who is unable to prove legal status – regardless of past criminal history, length of residence in the country, or family connections – may be targeted for deportation. This is a radical shift in priorities from past administrations, and not just Democratic ones.

Chicago and Rogers Park are at a crossroads... our status as the nation’s third-largest city and economy is at stake and our reputation as a preferred destination for immigrant communities is increasingly in doubt.

The climate of fear these policy changes have created impact not just the undocumented, but all immigrants who suddenly feel unwelcome in the country where they have chosen to build their lives. The consequences of these changes could ripple through the community and the country for years to come.


What the Future Holds

Both Chicago and Rogers Park are at a crossroads. For the city and the region, our status as the nation’s third-largest city and economy is at stake and our reputation as a preferred destination for immigrant communities is increasingly in doubt. 

For Rogers Park, the neighborhood’s unmatched diversity and traditional role as a gateway to the region could both soon be history. The neighborhood has already come under pressure as gentrification pushes north along the Red Line. A decline in immigration, and a collapse in refugee resettlement, could accelerate this process and fundamentally alter the composition of the neighborhood. A more homogenous, and less interesting, Rogers Park could be the result.

Chicago needs immigrants more than most cities just to eke out some modest population growth and economic expansion.

None of these things are inevitable. Chicago remains a large, vibrant city with a highly diversified economy and much to offer the millions of people who call it home, or come to visit. The Trump administration may or may not be successful in permanently changing immigration and refugee resettlement policy. Change could come as early as the 2018 mid-term elections.

But one fact remains. Chicago needs immigrants more than most cities just to eke out some modest population growth and economic expansion. Any continuation in the current trend toward less immigration and fewer refugees will have a disproportionate impact on Chicago and the Midwest, both of which struggle to fully recover from the last recession. 

Property owners in Rogers Park and elsewhere in the Chicago region should recognize the importance of new arrivals to their community and to their city. Demand for housing comes from many sources, but the foreign-born have been an important source of demand for apartments in Chicago, and especially in Rogers Park. As property owners, our livelihoods will be impacted by changes in immigration policy. The fact that this is a pocketbook issue is just one of the reasons (perhaps not the most important) why we should all be concerned about the growing climate of intolerance toward immigrants. 

 

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