When Skokie banned the parking of taxicabs on its streets overnight, some residents didn't even notice.
But for members of one South Asian immigrant group, many of whom drive taxis, the move was onerous. It outlawed the vehicles by which they made their living.
That's an example of the lack of communication between immigrants, who make up about a third of the population in many northern suburbs, and village governments, according to a report released Friday by the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs.
Immigrants contribute $6.5 billion to the local economy, yet villages don't often have them on their radar, according to the report, "Open to All? Different Cultures, Same Communities: A Look at Immigrants and Housing in Chicago’s Northern Suburbs.”
More housing, raising awareness
The report, produced at the University of Illinois at Chicago, set out ambitious goals: to expand the housing available in the northern suburbs for immigrants, increase awareness of immigrants among local governments and recognize immigrants as a positive value in the 16 suburbs it surveyed.
They included Deerfield, Des Plaines, Evanston, Glencoe, Glenview, Highland Park, Highwood, Lincolnwood, Morton Grove, Niles, Northbrook, Northfield, Park Ridge, Skokie, Wilmette and Winnetka.
The report, presented at the Skokie Library, urged villages to look at their housing policies to see how they affect immigrant groups.
“Villages have to avoid insensitive policies that have unintended consequences," said Janet Smith, co-director of the Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at UIC, which produced the report.
37 percent of residents born elsewhere
The flow of information has to go both ways, Smith said, by making sure immigrant communities understand their rights and responsibilities, and that local governments understand how their actions affect immigrants.
According to the report, 37 percent of Skokie residents in 2000 were born outside the United States, up from 27.9 percent a decade earlier.
Several near northern suburbs experienced similar increases in the proportion of immigrant residents, including Niles, where the immigrant population jumped from 21.8 percent to 33.7 percent, and Morton Grove, where the immigrant population jumped from 22.7 percent to 33.6 percent, said Smith, who directed the three-year study of the 16 communities served by the Interfaith Housing Center.
Skokie, Niles, Morton Grove and Lincolnwood had higher than average concentrations of immigrants from Poland, India, the Philippines, Iraq, Romania, China, Ukraine and Germany. While the largest immigrant group in the study area was from Mexico, it was concentrated in Highwood and Des Plaines.
Immigrants urged to get involved in communities
Lali Watt, a former Wilmette trustee who has lived in countries around the world, suggested that immigrants would be served well by going to local board and commission meetings where members discuss, for example, what constitutes a “family” for the purposes of housing.
“If you go, you will have a seat at the table, but you have to keep going,” said Watt.
Communities also should take care to avoid emphasizing the “apartness” and exoticism of other cultures, without also addressing their real needs.
“Sometimes we have a festival with the food and the dance and that’s all,” she said.
Ignorance breeds conflicts
Samina Hussain, who chairs the Morton Grove Community Relations Commission, said local governments must address bad feelings that are engendered by conflicts between immigrant and native-born communities.
“In our community we had a mosque that was being planned and there was a lot of ugliness,” she said.
The study found that immigrants as a group move to the suburbs for the same reason native-born residents do: for good schools, safe neighborhoods and access to jobs. They are more likely to be married, have slightly more children and lower median incomes and are less likely than native-born residents to own their homes.
But they are also more likely to live in communities that have a high proportion of high-cost, high-risk mortgages, and are disproportionately affected by policies that encourage single-family housing at the cost of multi-family rental units. They also tend to live in communities where foreclosures have increased between 600 and over 1000 percent between 2005 and 2009.
The report recommended:
- Villages can reach out to immigrant groups to discuss concerns.
- Government commissions can educate native-born residents about immigrants' needs and what they offer.
- Villages can review their laws, such as on multi-family housing, to see how they affect immigrants.
- Communities can get immigrants involved in the community and government, but not just as tokens.
- Communities can get a dialogue going between native-born and immigrant groups.This could take place among residents in small-group settings.