Opportunity has always brought new communities to Chicago, from the growth of railroads and stockyards in the 19th century to the recent emergence of technology startups; the city has consistently welcomed people from different corners of the world. In embracing all of the cultural, social, and economic capital that immigrants bring with them, Chicago has benefited enormously, becoming a cosmopolitan city that can boast of pho shops and Mexican folk art spaces alongside its grand architecture. Immigrants always have been critical to our city, and a new Plan of Chicago must continue to attract them.
Nearly one in every seven Illinois residents is an immigrant, and more than 90 percent of those immigrants live in metropolitan Chicago. While Chicago's overall population declined from 2000 to 2010, the immigrant community grew, with Asians in particular growing at a rapid clip of nearly 20 percent. Whether it's opening small businesses, revitalizing neighborhoods or introducing new cuisines, the constant flow of immigrants to our city infuses new energy and hope with every generation. Whether Chicago becomes, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel says, "the most immigrant-friendly city in America" is not a matter of choice but of necessity; we are engaged in a global race with other cities for foreign investment and international standing.
But what does it look like and mean to support immigrants so they can lead Chicago to a more industrious and productive era? Language access and culturally relevant services paired with electoral reform are vital to unlocking the potential of the dynamic immigrant population.
Although immigrant communities have experienced great successes, 35 percent of Chicagoans speak a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. These numbers suggest a significant population with parents relying on children to fill out forms and interface with city agencies, or lacking awareness of the full breadth of available city services. Cities such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have implemented either language access policies or, even better, ordinances which set a floor of bilingual assistance available for frontline city services. By improving upon this approach, Chicago increases the potential of immigrants to contribute in a variety of different ways by decreasing their barriers to basic services. Increasing language access does not have to be solely a government-run effort. Partnering with local community-based organizations, pillars in their respective communities, could play an important role in meeting this challenge.
If improved language access is combined with culturally relevant services, then the impact could be enormous and far-reaching.
This means public schools that offer up curriculum and linguistic diversity, that speak to the varied student base and better prepare youth to meet the challenges of living and interacting in a global economy. Bilingual students who dream about college, but who are falling behind in the classroom and helping their parents run their business after school, would get the teachers, resources and programming that help them succeed.
This means police and a legal infrastructure that can effectively engage with the language and cultural diversity of the city, so that immigrants will seek out the protections they can provide. From domestic violence cases to hate crimes and discrimination, the legal system plays an important role in immigrants' lives and needs to be transparent and accessible to everyone.
Language access provides a crucial cornerstone to the immigrant experience in Chicago, but there are countless ways to make Chicago more immigrant-friendly. However, these ideas can and must come from the community, which means serious efforts must be made to bring their political voices into the system.
Our city's election officials should be empowered and funded to implement new ways to increase voter turnout, such as election day registration and more resources for language assistance to limited-English voters. It also means finally reforming Chicago's redistricting process, which often has stifled many local neighborhoods' ability to be heard at City Hall. Last year, the then-100-year-old Chinatown community was denied its wish to be placed in one ward, and the Back of the Yards community's voice was completely ignored. Giving every citizen a voice in our democracy means a stronger, more viable city, one that overcomes its politics-as-usual image and instead strives to be inclusive of more voices.
In his op-ed in the Sun-Times earlier this summer, Mayor Emanuel wrote that "the City of Big Shoulders was built on the shoulders of immigrants, and our future depends on the contributions of immigrants no less than (it) did (in) our past." We believe an immigrant-friendly city brings opportunity to more people and has a ripple effect of accumulating labor, resources, and energy, which could be harnessed for improvements throughout the city. To truly unlock the potential of Chicago's immigrant communities and lead Chicago to another era of greatness, meaningful and significant action is required. If all Chicagoans can unite around this path, then the future will indeed be bright for this city we all love.
Tuyet Le is executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Chicago.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun