Chicago’s Roots Run Deep
Like most big cities, Chicago has been a hub for those looking to start anew in a new nation with new opportunities. Along with the rest of the United States, the first waves of immigration consisted primarily of Europeans from Germany, Poland, Ireland and other “old-world” nations. The secondary waves saw mass numbers of immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
The roots of Chicago’s immigrant history run deep. Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull-House here in 1889. Hull-House, located in the near west side of Chicago, was a settlement house for newly-arrived European immigrants. By 1911, the complex had grown to 13 buildings. Hull House became the standard-bearer for the movement, and by 1920 there were almost 500 such settlement houses nationally.
According to Rob Paral of the Institute for Metropolitan Affairs at Roosevelt University, the Windy City has one of the richest immigration histories among American cities. In 1870, immigrants made up almost half of the city’s population – larger than anywhere else in North America. Between 1880 to 1960, the city’s foreign-born population was second only to New York’s.
Paral found that as of 2003, the metropolitan Chicago area had the seventh largest immigrant population in the nation, with 1.4 million immigrants constituting 18 percent of the overall population.
Ethnic groups formed in new homelands typically follow patterns of what’s called “chain migration.” That is, immigrants tend to settle in neighborhoods with others who not only share their native country but are typically from the same cities and neighborhoods back home.
There are a lot of similarities between the Polish communities that formed in Chicago throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s and today’s Mexican communities, according to Jan Lorys, director of the Polish Museum of America.
“If you want to study the Mexican population here now, you should look at the Polish community of approximately 100 years ago,” Lorys said.
While emigration from Europe has slowed down, in large part because of the formation of the European Union, more immigrants are coming from Asia and Africa. Even with the EU, the U.S. still holds certain appeals for immigration, Lorys said. Most European nations are more bureaucratic, making it more difficult to start and run one’s own business, he said. More and better opportunities for entrepreneurship exist in the U.S.
Tracking immigrant populations in Chicago and other cities is difficult. The 2010 Census eliminated the ethnicity category, making the 2000 data the most recent available in many categories. And that data was collected before the international economic crisis, before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and before the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other global events.
An interactive map published by the New York Times in 2009 tracked immigrant populations across the country, decade by decade. As of 2000, about one-fifth of the county’s 5.4 million residents reported themselves as being foreign-born. Of those, more than 120,000 were born in Poland while 430,000 were from Mexico. Newer immigrant groups made up a significant portion, coming from nations such as China, Japan, Middle Eastern countries and African nations like Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia.
Paral and Roosevelt University found that the three largest foreign-born groups in the Chicago metro area as of 2003 were immigrants from Mexico (582,000 people,) Poland (137,670,) and India (76,931,) – constituting more than half of all the immigrants in the area. The other half is far more diverse, with no group comprising more than a small percentage of the population.
- PBS on the immigration experience in Chicago
- Jane Addams Hull House Museum
- Chicago Tribune: On the Move: Immigration Matters
- C-Span on Chicago Immigration
- Migration Policy Institute
- Mexican Migration Project
- Immigration History Research Center
- USA Today’s guide to ethnic Chicago neighborhoods
- Census maps for Chicago, 1990
- Great Chicago neighborhoods: “Three ethnic odysseys”