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Why Immigrants Are Leaving Chicago

The city has long depended on an influx of immigrants, but they’ve stopped moving there—and the ones who already live there often can’t stay.

Residents of Pilsen, Chicago, on a hot day in 2007.
Residents of Pilsen, Chicago, on a hot day in 2007. (Señor Codo/Flickr)

In 2015, Chicago and surrounding areas saw its first net population loss in decades, and it was a doozy: 11,324 residents. The year after, that loss ballooned to 19,570.

At the heart of the problem is Cook County, which topped the list of population losers in 2016. Why? Well, among other reasons, fewer immigrants are moving to the city. And many of the ones who currently live there—who have kept the city up and running—can’t afford to stay on. Add to that the Trump administration’s effort to limit legal and illegal immigration, and the decline might accelerate, worsening the city’s already-dire economic woes.

The impact of national policy

The fate of Chicago’s population has always been tied to national migration trends.

By 1870, immigrants already made up 48 percent of the city’s population, according to Chicago demographer Rob Paral. With restrictive immigration laws in the early part of the 19th century, the city’s population ebbed; When the laws changed in 1965, opening the door to the biggest, most diverse wave of immigrants, it grew. Chicago and its suburbs started filling out, largely because of immigrants from Mexico, for whom it was the top destination after L.A. During the 1990s, this Mexican influx made up a staggering 105 percent of the total population growth—head and shoulders above other large hubs like Dallas (73 percent) and L.A. (63 percent). For the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, Paral writes:

More than any other large American city, Chicago has depended on immigrants, particularly Mexican immigrants, to offset the sluggish growth of its native-born population.

Starting in the 2000s, however, immigration to the Second City started declining, particularly from Mexico. That shift reflected two larger trends. One, newcomers were no longer making a beeline to the traditional “gateway cities” like Chicago, and instead fanning out to suburbs and smaller sunbelt towns where jobs were growing and the cost of living was lower. Second, economic prospects improved in Mexico during the recession, and lagged in the U.S. Net migration from Mexico ultimately reversed.

Inside Chicago, formerly vibrant Hispanic enclaves started to slump. South Lawndale, for example, lost 10 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010. Folks were dying or moving out, without being replaced. To show how that area has aged, below are maps that Paral and his associates created comparing the share of South Lawndale households with children in 1990 and 2012:  

Now, the Trump administration has ramped up enforcement to further crack down on unauthorized immigration through harsher border policing and internal raids. There are also plenty of signs that the government intends to restrict legal immigration, as well. That doesn’t bode well for Chicago, which is already in the throes of a budget crisis. Via Crain’s Chicago:

"If we lock the doors and put up this huge fence and don't let people in, our productivity will shrink and we'll likely see our gross regional product decline upwards of 7 percent to 8 percent by 2040 and beyond," says Geoffrey J.D. Hewings, emeritus director of the Regional Economics Applications Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In current terms, with Chicago GRP at $561 billion, that would mean an impact of $39 billion to $45 billion. While not entirely comparable, the overall financial hit could be greater than that of the 2008 recession, he says.

The city’s role in driving immigrants away

Representatives of churches in Indiana are often seen on the streets of Pilsen, a Latino neighborhood in Lower West Side, handing out information in hopes of attracting new members to their congregations and neighborhoods. The city’s Latino residents certainly have reasons to consider making the move, says Byron Sigcho, of the Pilsen Alliance, a grassroots community organization which advocates for working class immigrants in the city. The costs of living in the city outweigh any benefit for Latinos, just as they do with other groups who are leaving town. “We can see [the population loss] everyday, with families being evicted from their homes, and people losing their jobs,” Sigcho says. “We've seen people go into the suburbs to look for better school districts."

The city has had a role to play in creating this environment. Critics argue that it just hasn’t invested in neighborhoods of color—which lack good public schools, jobs, public safety, and affordable housing—with the same gusto as it has in the downtown area. These are among the reasons that the city’s black population has taken to the suburbs in recent years. “There are probably over 40 cranes currently operating primarily in that section of the city—very little in other parts of the city in the neighborhoods where working class residents live, particularly African-American and Latino communities,” says Jesús "Chuy" García, a Cook County Commissioner for the 7th District, who represents many of these neighborhoods. “Development patterns continue to perpetuate segregation now combined with income segregation.”

He’s right. While the city builds, builds, builds luxury high-rises downtown, it caps development in other non-immigrant, in-demand neighborhoods, like Lincoln Park. Daniel Hertz, a senior policy analyst at the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, unpacked this problem in a blog post from 2015:

Chicago’s laws allow a massive boom in parts of downtown—mostly where there weren’t enough white-collar residents to complain—while putting a tight lid on the neighborhoods.

Since replacing a couple two-flats with a courtyard building is now illegal, developers make money by tearing down an old two-flat and building a luxury two-flat in its place. Or they build a mansion, and the neighborhood actually loses a housing unit. As a result, as a neighborhood becomes more attractive, the city encourages fewer people to live there.

As a result, massive gentrification pressures have hit Latino neighborhoods like Pilsen and Little Village that lie adjacent to downtown. And after the city passed the highest property tax rate hike in modern history in 2015, renters have felt especially pinched. “It's really impossible to keep up with rising housing costs,” says Sigcho, of the Pilsen Alliance. “Families have a hard time staying in communities where there are opportunities and they're neglected to areas that are violent, disinvested and without resources.”

Sigcho himself has moved to the edge of Pilsen, but hopes that he doesn’t have to move out of the city altogether in the future. “Optimism doesn't allow us to see that we are really going to touch bottom,” he says. But,“I will not rule out … being displaced from my own neighborhood, because even with two jobs, it’s just harder and harder to pay the bills.” The irony is that the city that’s made it so hard for working class immigrants to keep afloat is going to have a hard time keeping afloat without them.

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.