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Why Chicago Is Still the No. 2 U.S. City for Mexican Immigrants

A closer look at the history of Mexican migration patterns reveals that it's actually a natural choice.

A market in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood on the West Side. The West Side has a majority Hispanic population, including a large number of Mexican immigrants. (Flickr/gabrielxmichael)

If you're out in Chicago's West Side at around four in the morning, you might stumble upon the most delicious, homemade tamales. Before the sun rises, workers line the street corner where the tamale cart is parked, groggily waiting their turn for their pre-morning shift fix.  

It's not a surprising sight given that Chicago houses the second largest population of Mexican-born immigrants in the U.S., according to the Migration Policy Institute. Their report spotlights Mexican-born immigrants around the country, tracing the population's history, migration patterns and demographic trends.

Chicago and neighboring metro areas are second on the list of cities with largest number of Mexico-born immigrants. (Migration Policy Institute)

Chicago is second only to L.A. and sits above Houston, Dallas, and all other Texas metros on the list of U.S. cities with the largest Mexican-born populations.

The Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston metro areas account for about 26 percent of Mexican-born immigrants in the United States. (Migration Policy Institute)

The city might seem like an unlikely hub given how much farther away it is from the Mexican border compared to Houston or L.A. But a closer look at the history of Mexican migration to Chicago reveals that it's actually a natural choice.

The first major wave of migration was driven by political unrest in Mexico in the early part of the 20th century. Once the immigrants entered the U.S. at the Southwest border, they were connected to Chicago by rail. So it may have been far, but wasn't that hard to get there, says Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the institute.

Why did they board that train to the Midwest when they could have stayed in Austin or Dallas or L.A.?

Probably the same factors that pulled African-Americans up to Chicago from the South, Rosenblum says. At the time, Chicago was a growing industrial hub, with low-wage jobs available in industries—such as meatpacking—that struggled to attract native-born workers.

By the time subsequent waves of immigration came along, Chicago, with its "critical mass" of Mexican immigrants, was already poised to become a hub.

"You get... pathways where once you have a core of immigrants in a location, family and social network connections make that a destination for future rounds of immigration," Rosenblum says.

In fact, within Mexico, certain regions like Michoacán push migration to Chicago more than others.

Overall immigration from Mexico accelerated in the 1960s, and Chicago's share also increased during that time. By 1967, it had inched past all cities in Texas to grab the number two spot, Rosenblum says.

Mexico-born immigrants increased sharply in the 1960s. (Migration Policy Institute)

Chicago continues to have relatively immigrant-friendly policies and resources for various immigrant communities. The other possible reason that might attract Mexican immigrants to the city? A relatively lower cost of living compared to Los Angeles or New York.

Those tamales, for example, are $1 a piece.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.