Mexicans in the Chicago area

Strong hands, vibrant cultures, and creative minds have built  Chicago, forming a great city of opportunity able to take advantage of economic, political, and social changes that have come its way. Throughout its history, immigrants from all corners of the world have played critical roles in shaping the character and economic life of the Chicago region. In 1870, Chicago boasted the highest proportion of immigrants of any North American city, with half of its residents born outside the US; currently Chicago continues to have one of the largest immigrant populations in the nation. Like much of the United States, Chicago drew its immigrants first from Northern, then Southern and Eastern Europe, as Germans, Swedes, and Irish were followed by Italians and Poles. Most of these immigrants assimilated into what has been called the melting pot of American culture within a generation or so, aided by jobs requiring little education, immigrant settlement houses, and ethnic churches and neighborhoods. These mostly European immigrants helped to transform Chicago from a trading post to an industrial capital. In the postindustrial age, immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries and Asia have halted population declines, altered the cultural landscape, and are contributing to economic growth. They play a vital role in Chicago’s transformation into a global city. Mexicans have been in the region since the late 19th century when they came to work in the steel mills and railroads, and have become a part of Chicago’s multiethnic character. In the last 20 years, however, the increasing number of Mexicans in Chicago have had a great impact on the local and regional economies, education systems, governments, and public health institutions in ways that must be addressed by policymakers.

Mexicans are a vibrant and promising economic force in Chicago, but the majority of workers are concentrated in low-wage, low-skilled jobs while employment growth is in high-wage, high-skilled industries. In 2000, median wage estimates showed that there were more foreign-born Mexican men in the Chicago region earning from $6 to $12 per hour, the lowest wage category than those in all other wage categories. Similarly, median annual earnings of Latinos are approximately $21,500 compared to $36,600 for white non-Latinos, according to a recent survey of the region. Many Mexicans, both US and foreign born face obstacles to gaining better employment and financial prosperity, including low education levels and inadequate English skills; limited contacts beyond their circle of friends and family; problems with validating degrees and other work credentials earned in Mexico; and cultural differences. For undocumented immigrants the obstacles are even greater. Removing these obstacles will enable Mexicans to contribute more fruitfully to Chicago’s economy as workers, business owners and consumers.

Like other immigrants before them, Mexicans come to Chicago in search of a better life for themselves and their families. They work hard so that their children can obtain a good education, pursue successful careers, and enjoy better lives than they did. Education has led the way out of poverty and tough, physical work for many first and second generation immigrants – it is an essential part of the solid education that prepares them for a successful future seems out of reach.  Yet as employment in the Chicago area continues shifting from manufacturing to service and technology, the increasing need for a highly trained, educated, multilingual workforce requires that the region offer high quality education from preschool through college for all its residents. Chicago needs to assure that the education of all its residents is sufficient to enable them to compete in the global marketplace. This long-term investment in human capital will pay off for everyone, but is of particular importance to greater Chicago’s Mexican community. Latino children under 18, primarily US born Mexicans, make up 35% of the total Latino population in the Chicago region. Between 1990 and 2004, their numbers grew by more than 80%, with every county except Cook experiencing more than 150% growth. These children will soon be needed as the front-line workers, managers, inventors, communicators, and specialists. Yet Mexicans and other Latinos are unprepared for jobs that require higher education. In metropolitan Chicago, only about 30% of Latinos have some college or a degree, compared to 68% of whites and 50% of blacks. 

Education seems to be a key to success, so maybe they should all be given a chance to have equall access to it…


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