Thursday, August 31, 2006

SunTimes: Immigrants flock to the suburbs

Immigrants flock to the suburbs

August 30, 2006

BY SCOTT FORNEK Political Reporter

The melting pot is bubbling over in the suburbs of Chicago.

The number of foreign-born U.S. citizens jumped by nearly 38 percent in the suburbs over the last five years -- leaping almost 50 percent in DuPage County alone and doubling in Will and Grundy counties, according to an analysis of Census information by a pro-immigrant group.

Calling it "a fundamental sea change of where immigrant citizens are living," the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights argues the changes have far-reaching political ramifica- tions.

"We're riding the crest of a tsunami," said Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the group and author of the report.

"Immigrants in Illinois are achieving the American dream of learning English, becoming American citizens and settling in the suburbs with their children.

"Immigrants are the new swing voters, the new soccer moms and NASCAR dads."

The coalition plans to formally release a report on the trend today. It's based on an analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau's latest estimates of population changes since 2000.

More becoming citizens

The group found that between 2000 and 2005, the state's total immigrant population -- including both undocumented residents and naturalized citizens -- rose by 177,000, an influx larger than the population of Aurora, the state's second largest city.

And while Chicago is often heralded as a city of immigrants, its total foreign-born population actually dipped 5 percent in the last five years, the first such drop during the wave of immigration that began in 1965.

Most important politically is the rise in the number of immigrants who have become U.S. citizens, making them eligible to vote. In the last five years the number of naturalized citizens in Illinois rose 23.1 percent, to 736,161.

But the real growth has been in the suburbs.

While Chicago only experienced a 4 percent increase in naturalized citizens of voting age during the period, the suburbs saw a boom of 37.5 percent.

The 48.2 percent rise in DuPage County means that 14.4 percent of its voting age population are naturalized citizens. In Will and Grundy counties, the number of adult naturalized citizens doubled, making them 6.3 percent of the total voting age population.

Which party will they help?

The report does not break down the immigrants by country of origin but notes that more than 100 nations are represented, with Mexico, Poland and India the top three.

"The political significance of this is that suburban communities that were traditionally Republican strongholds are now competitive for Democrats," Hoyt said.

Some studies have shown that Latinos and Asian Americans are more likely to vote Democratic, but Hoyt argues the diverse backgrounds of the immigrants make them fertile political ground for either party.

"The immigrant voters are a real swing constituency," Hoyt said. "They are attracted to the racial big tent of the Democratic Party and its stand on economic issues, but they are also attracted to the social conservatism and the entrepreneurialism that they identify with the Republican Party.

"But the most important thing is when they feel under attack, they will vote against the party they feel is attacking them."

That's a dig at Republicans, who have made curtailing illegal immigration a hot political issue. The coalition is one of the groups that helped organize the pro-immigration marches in Chicago this year.

'Faces that look like me'

As part of its efforts to mobilize the new citizens and realize the "today we march, tomorrow we vote" slogan, the coalition has 18 young people working to register immigrants to vote in suburban areas. Hoyt said they have registered 7,000 since mid-July.

Melissa Garcia, 21, a Harper College student, estimates that 75 percent of the roughly 400 people she has signed up in DuPage County have been immigrants, primarily from Mexico, Central America, South America or Asian countries.

But she said she saw the changes long before this.

The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she grew up in Hanover Park in one of the only households in the area that "was anything other than Anglo."

"Now, my neighbors are Hispanic," she said. "Tons of people are moving in the whole area itself. The percent of immigrants is just rising. I can just see it by looking down my street and seeing more faces that look like me."

'They're all welcome'

Illinois Republican Chairman Andy McKenna Jr. said he is not worried that the changing demographics will hurt the GOP, noting that Bush won 45 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide.

"I think families of every ethnic makeup in suburban communities care about schools, about jobs and pocketbook issues," McKenna said. "And we have a good story to tell on all of those."

Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham said Hispanics will continue to gain political power as their numbers grow, as the Irish did before them.

But Cunningham, also a Republican, said it will take a few elections to figure out which party fares better.

"They're all welcome and [I] hope they make the right choice when they vote."

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