Metro Chicago’s Mexican-Born Population Is Down By More Than 100,000 Over The Past Decade

Little Village mural
A view of a mural in the Little Village neighborhood on Chicago's Southwest Side. The community is home to thousands of Mexican immigrants, whose numbers are declining in the city, according to a new report released this week by the Metropolitan Planning Council. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ News
Little Village mural
A view of a mural in the Little Village neighborhood on Chicago's Southwest Side. The community is home to thousands of Mexican immigrants, whose numbers are declining in the city, according to a new report released this week by the Metropolitan Planning Council. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ News

Metro Chicago’s Mexican-Born Population Is Down By More Than 100,000 Over The Past Decade

The Mexican immigrant population in the Chicago metropolitan area has decreased by 15% over the last decade, shows a new report published this week.

That’s a 104,000-person loss, roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood disappearing, according to a report by the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC). The tri-state Chicago metro area includes the city, suburban Cook County and eight surrounding counties in northeast Illinois, four in northwest Indiana and one in southeast Wisconsin.

“I think those numbers are really alarming,” said Nick Villareal, MPC research fellow and author of the report. “I wanted to bring attention and inspire further research to figure out why this is happening.”

The decline was widespread from 2010 to 2019, according to the report. In the city, the Mexican immigrant population was down by 45,000. In Cook County, it was down 66,000, and in Illinois, it was down by about 100,000. The state’s white population declined by roughly 200,000 during that span, the report noted.

The state’s continuing population loss has been well-documented — Illinois has lost residents for seven years in a row — but accounts of that phenomenon have previously ignored the decline in the Mexican immigrant population.

“The media reports every year on Illinois population loss. We felt for a really long time that the wrong narratives have been centered,” said MPC Research Director Dan Cooper.

Cooper said most of the narratives about the population loss have focused on middle-class and upper-middle-class white residents leaving Illinois because of high taxes and the state’s pension woes.

“The reality is, that’s not true. They’re not more likely to leave than any other group; however we are not hearing much about immigrants,” he said.

The net loss of Mexican immigrants since 2010 is the continuation of a larger trend that has seen immigrant growth slow to a near halt over the past 30 years. In the ‘90s, Illinois had a net gain of 576,786 immigrants, according to the MPC report. From 2000 to 2010, the state witnessed a net gain of 230,801 immigrants. But from 2010 to 2019, the state’s immigrant population slowed to a net growth rate of just 0.4% — a net addition of only 6,622 immigrants. That trend helps explain why Illinois is near the bottom in population growth since 2010. Immigrant population growth had largely buoyed the state’s population growth in previous decades.

Luis Gutierrez, executive director of the Little Village-based nonprofit Latinos Progresando, said more research is needed to understand the population decline among Mexican immigrants. But he’s heard some stories of immigrant families going to other states looking for work.

“I’ve heard that there are opportunities in other states around the Midwest and so I’ve heard of families moving to Indiana, maybe Ohio, maybe Wisconsin for opportunities,” Gutierrez said. “Our city needs to do more and give more opportunities to the Mexican community so that we stop losing the population.”

Gutierrez said another reason for the decline might be fear. Mexican immigrants feared possible attacks after former President Donald Trump launched his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists and so they left, he said.

Another likely factor is increased immigration enforcement. Former President Barack Obama took office in 2009 and quickly shifted operations from workplace enforcement to beefing up programs like Secure Communities and increased enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border. Funding for federal immigration enforcement grew, reaching nearly $18 billion, according to a Migration Policy report. Within a few years, Obama had deported more immigrants than his predecessors and immigrant rights activists started calling him the “Deporter-in-Chief.” The majority of immigrants deported were Mexican.

Mexican immigrants have called Chicago home for more than a century; the first wave arrived in the South Chicago neighborhood between 1915 and 1940 to work in the steel mills. And as long as this population has been in Chicago, it’s had a complicated history with the city.

“This issue might be very visible now, but it does have a long history,” said Mike Amezcua, assistant history professor at Georgetown University.

In his book, Making Mexican Chicago, Amezcua documents the history of Mexican immigrants in Chicago from postwar settlement to the age of gentrification. Amezcua grew up in Los Angeles but his grandmother, Ofelia, was born in Chicago. Her family was forced out of the city.

“My great grandfather worked in the steel mills,” he said. “By 1929, the stock market crashed and the nation went into a depression. Mexican immigrants were heavily scapegoated during this time. They were blamed for the ills of the economy. Mexicans were encouraged to either self-repatriate or, in some cases, were coerced to return to Mexico. This included my grandmother Ofelia.”

Her family returned to Michoacan, a Mexican state along the Pacific Ocean roughly 200 miles west of Mexico City. Ofelia lived there until she died, but other Mexican immigrants continued to arrive in Chicago. This new wave of immigrants worked in meat packing and distribution plants, Amezcua said.

And they found a new home in the city’s Near West side.

“This was an area that was increasingly disinvested by the city and the housing stock is really old. And this is where the Mexican immigrants find opportunities to live and to bring other family members,” Amezcua said. “You begin to see settlement around what is now the University of Illinois at Chicago, where the campus now sits.”

But Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley wanted to redevelop the city.

“Mayor Daley essentially hands over this land to the University of Illinois to build its urban campus and that displaces the biggest Mexican community during the 1950s and 1960s,” he said.

Those families moved to communities like Pilsen, Little Village and Back of the Yards, he said.

In the ‘70s, a new plan surfaced to attract white professionals back to the city after nearly two decades of white flight. The Chicago 21 Plan was aimed at rehabbing communities around the Loop. This plan created communities like the current South Loop, but it came at a cost.

“The Chicago 21 Plan came from the city in partnership with corporate downtown businesses that looked to Pilsen and literally created a plan that had renderings of people being able to use sailboats along the south branch of the Chicago River,” he said. “It imagined Pilsen as a residential playground for young urban whites. They were people that commuted to work downtown and on the weekends could use the river.”

But the community fought back against this plan. And Mexican immigrants won some battles, including the construction of Benito Juarez Community Academy. However, the displacement has continued. Since 2000, the Latino population in Pilsen has declined by more than 14,000.

Other majority Latino neighborhoods around the city have also lost population. For example, Logan Square is now majority white, WBEZ reported in December 2020.

“Mexican immigrants, one of the constants of this group, is that they move to wherever the work is,” Amezcua said, adding that the closing of food processing plants in Chicago has likely contributed to the population decline.

And the rising cost of living in Chicago is making the city less attractive to this group.

“Mexican immigrants coming to Chicago in 2021 … probably wouldn’t be able to find an affordable place to live,” he said.

Gutierrez agrees.

“Our elected officials really need to start paying attention to the Mexican immigrant community,” he said. “They need to figure out how the city, county and the state are going to start programs to make sure that this population is not leaving because we are losing out on workers. We’re losing out consumers. We’re losing out taxpayers.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Mexican immigrant population decline in Chicago.

María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.