Under the Radar

September 4, 2007

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García helped form the Waukegan Leadership Committee.

Latino immigrants are increasing their numbers in suburbs throughout the Chicago area. They're contributing to the economic and social life of these communities. But in few places have they made major inroads into elected offices. Many suburban immigrants say it's time for them to play a greater role in local politics. That's got some long-time residents worried. Today Chicago Matters: Beyond Borders begins a two-month examination of immigration issues in the city's suburbs. Chicago Public Radio's Chip Mitchell reports on a political awakening among immigrants in Waukegan.

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Waukegan Mayor Richard Hyde says he's got a button under his desk.

HYDE: I press it here and there will be two officers walking in with guns pointed right at your head.

Oh yeah?

HYDE: No, I'm not kidding you. Here's the button right here (laughs).

Since taking office five years ago, Mayor Hyde has been on a mission. He wants Waukegan to recover the reputation it had before tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs along the lakefront began disappearing in the 1970s.

HYDE: We want to get this old cliché of saying, “Go to Waukegan. Heck, they don't do nothing there.” Or, “You're from Waukegan. Stay back. Stay there.” And it's slowly starting to change now because people are beginning to realize that I'm serious in turning this town around.

Mayor Hyde says the turnaround means reviving the economy. And that's not all.

HYDE: The general population in Waukegan -- all races -- are fed up with lawbreakers.

So the city started to crack down. Waukegan began charging drivers caught without a license $500 to recover their car from the impound lot. The policy has frustrated undocumented immigrants, who aren't allowed a license in Illinois. The city also intensified its housing inspections, again rankling many immigrants.

HYDE: OK, we got criticized yesterday because they red-tagged a house. And they went in there and it was full of fleas. Unbelievable. Well, these are health hazards.

Then came word the city was considering sending police officers for training to initiate deportations. Thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans protested the plan outside city council meetings this summer.

Ambi: Cheering.

Margaret Carrasco helped lead the protests.

CARRASCO: This is our community, and no one can take it away from us, and we're not moving anywhere.

The council, nevertheless, voted overwhelmingly for the police training. Many Waukegan immigrants say they're not getting the political representation they deserve. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half of Waukegan's population is now Latino and more than a third of city residents are immigrants. Yet the city council's nine members include just two Latinos -- both Puerto Rican -- and no immigrants. Political scientists say that's typical of places where immigrants have settled. Many immigrants can't vote because they're not citizens. Those that are tend to be young and poor. And most immigrants in Waukegan grew up in Mexico under one-party rule. They're not used to running for office.

PUENTE: The Latino community is still in the process of politically maturing.

Sylvia Puente heads the Metropolitan Chicago Initiative of Notre Dame's Institute for Latino Studies.

PUENTE: It's going to take a long time before we see those activists get to the point where they're willing or able to run for elected office.

One of the city's largest organizations, the Tonatico Social Club, takes its name from a Mexican town where thousands of Waukegans have roots. The club's president, Miguel Arizmendi, has lived in Waukegan for 30 years, but says he'd never consider running for office.

ARIZMENDI: Soy muy tímido, muy tímido para hablar en inglés....

He says he's too shy to speak publicly in English. But Arizmendi did feel bold enough to help organize this summer's protests. And those protests galvanized Waukegan's immigrants.

Ambi: Workshop.

An old red-brick school serves as the Immigrant Center of Holy Family, Waukegan's largest Catholic parish. Since the center opened last year, about 1,500 people have filled out citizenship applications in the gymnasium.

LOPEZ: And it's several pages that we need to fill out...

María Luisa López is applying 11 years after arriving from Mexico. She and her husband run a Waukegan payroll company. As a citizen, López says, she'll be a stronger advocate for the town's undocumented immigrants.

LOPEZ: They're afraid. They're scared. They don't want to go out. So we feel responsible for them. Because it's our people. It's our community.

Several Waukegan groups are planning to step up Latino voter registration and leadership development efforts. And there's a new group.

Ambi (election): We're going to do secretary. Anybody else? Raise your hand if you're voting for Vianey. We don't have to ask her to leave (laughter).

The Waukegan Leadership Committee elected its officers last week. The committee includes some three dozen Latino businessmen, professionals and religious activists. The president is one of the city's most successful realtors, Porfirio García.

GARCIA: Part of the agenda is to look for leaders that are interested in running for public office, to put ourselves in position where the 12 million people that are here illegally can become legal.

But efforts to bring more Latinos into politics are raising some fears in Waukegan.

VAN HEIRSEELE: They could be legal immigrants but, then again, you don't know if they're really fighting for the legals or the illegals. There's a fine line there.

At a diner on Waukegan's north side, a single mother named Karen Van Heirseele says immigrants strain public resources.

VAN HEIRSEELE: If you're having four different families living in one household, there are three sets of families' taxes the schools aren't getting, the city isn't getting.

And Van Heirseele sees a bigger issue.

VAN HEIRSEELE: We are a melting pot, but it's not going to be melting pot if they're all from one region.

What region?

VAN HEIRSEELE: South. That seems to be our biggest issue.

Ambi (music): And welcome back to WKRS 1220, your voice in Lake County. This is Fred Flannigan. You are on “A Citizen's Voice”....

Van Heirseele and many other critics of illegal immigrants tune in to this evening call-in show. The host, Fred Flannigan, is a Waukegan native who organized a pro-enforcement conference in nearby Grayslake this summer. Flannigan is a Libertarian. But enforcing immigration law also appeals to many Republicans and to some Democrats, like Waukegan Alderman Richard Larsen. At a city council meeting this summer, Larsen lauded the police-training plan.

LARSEN: We are simply supporting our police department in fighting crime. Nothing sinister or new is involved.

Another Democrat, Mayor Hyde, insists Waukegan hasn't turned against immigrants.

HYDE: Even our undocumented Hispanic families. They're super families.

But Hyde does offer them some advice.

HYDE: With all the gangs that are going on, and all this business of driving without licenses, having accidents, creating a tremendous amount of damage. Just stay under the radar. Don't bring attention to yourself.

Staying under the police radar may be wise. But Waukegan's immigrants say staying out of politics is no longer an option. Mayor Hyde, a former high-school coach, says bring it on.

HYDE: When you have a team, you put the best people that you can possibly get in a starting lineup. If you want my position, beat me.

Waukegan's next election is in 2009.

I'm Chip Mitchell, Chicago Public Radio.

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