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Two migrants walk past buses at Chicago's landing zone in January

Two newly arrived migrants in January walk past buses at Chicago’s designated “landing zone,” which routes people to shelters or out of the city. As the city begins to evict migrants on a rolling basis, people can go back to the landing zone to re-apply for shelter.

Zubaer Khan

How migration to Chicago today compares with earlier inflows from Europe, the South and Mexico

Chicago evicted three migrants from shelters Sunday. They were the first people affected by a city policy that limits how long new arrivals can live in the city’s temporary housing.

The number was lower than expected. Officials put the majority of evictions on hold as it implemented exceptions for families and for people impacted by a measles outbreak.

The thousands of migrants in city shelters are part of the 37,000 people who have come to Chicago since August 2022, many of them from Venezuela.

Officials have called the influx “unprecedented,” but a WBEZ analysis identified multiple periods in Chicago’s history when the city saw similar — or even larger — flows of migrants.

Reset explored the connections between current migration to Chicago and earlier waves from Europe, the South and Mexico.

Early European Migration (19th Century)

In both the 1860 and the 1870 census, nearly half of Chicagoans reported they were born in Europe. Germany and Ireland were the top two countries of origin.

Connection to the current moment: Long before former Chicago mayor Harold Washington issued his 1985 executive order declaring Chicago a sanctuary city for migrants, people in the city were working to provide services for new arrivals.

A prime example was Jane Addams and Hull House, which opened in 1889.

Over the past year and a half, the Chicago area has once again opened its arms to migrants.

The Great Migration (1916-1970)

Beginning in the 1910s, Chicago’s Black population began to grow steadily each decade until 1980. That increase was largely driven by Black people from the South who hoped to leave Jim Crow laws and racist violence behind. But in Chicago, people still faced systemic racism, and policies like redlining have contributed to segregation.

Connection to the current moment: Many Venezuelan migrants seeking asylum in Chicago are also fleeing violence and economic hardship. And like Black people who arrived in Chicago during the Great Migration, they say they’ve experienced racism here.

Many people staying in city shelters, for example, have filed complaints alleging that staff made racist remarks.

Whether migrants feel welcome to stay — or can afford to — will be dependent on how Chicago responds.

Mexican Migration (1990s)

Mexican migration to Chicago peaked in the 1990s as people fled an economic crisis in Mexico. But Mexicans had already been coming to the Windy City for decades, often as a result of U.S. policy.

The Bracero Program provided short-term contracts to pay Mexican immigrants to work on U.S. farms between 1942 and 1962. Many people then moved to cities like Chicago, seeking other work.

That ongoing migration meant that Mexicans moving to Chicago in the 90s could find already-established communities of Mexican Americans.

Connection to the current moment: That’s not the case for Venezuelans. Many of them arrive in Chicago after being bussed here from Texas, and most don’t have a connection to the city or a place to stay.

The 2020 census showed roughly 4,000 Venezuelans in Chicago. The number of Venezuelan migrants who arrived since then is many times that, and there is no predominantly Venezuelan American neighborhood that newcomers can lean on as they work to establish themselves in Chicago.

You can listen to the full conversation above.

GUESTS: Amy Qin, WBEZ data reporter

Lilia Fernández, history professor, University of Illinois at Chicago

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