migrant children in Chicago from three eras
Chicago has been home to new migrants for generations, as seen in these photos of migrant children from 1908, 1941, and 2024. Photos courtesy of Chicago History Museum, Library of Congress, Chicago Sun-Times file photos. Photoillustration by Mendy Kong/WBEZ

How Chicago’s long history of migrant influxes has shaped its population

Whether from Europe, the South or Mexico, Chicago has seen upticks in new arrivals before — not always with open arms.

Chicago has been home to new migrants for generations, as seen in these photos of migrant children from 1908, 1941, and 2024. Photos courtesy of Chicago History Museum, Library of Congress, Chicago Sun-Times file photos. Photoillustration by Mendy Kong/WBEZ
migrant children in Chicago from three eras
Chicago has been home to new migrants for generations, as seen in these photos of migrant children from 1908, 1941, and 2024. Photos courtesy of Chicago History Museum, Library of Congress, Chicago Sun-Times file photos. Photoillustration by Mendy Kong/WBEZ

How Chicago’s long history of migrant influxes has shaped its population

Whether from Europe, the South or Mexico, Chicago has seen upticks in new arrivals before — not always with open arms.

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Chicago has certainly been here before.

The more than 36,000 migrants that have arrived to Chicago over the past year-and-a-half are just some of the latest to immigrate to a city that, over a century ago, saw nearly half its residents hail from other countries.

The past year-and-a-half has been a pivotal moment in the city’s history on both a political and operational level. While thousands have begun to build a life as they await the outcome of their immigration cases, still more people arrive, as Texas’ governor continues to bus and even fly people to the city. The tens of thousands of asylum-seekers, hailing mostly from Latin America, have tested the city’s infrastructure as it struggles to provide housing and other services.

But it’s not the first time Chicago has experienced a significant number of new arrivals.

“These are massive numbers of migration, but it’s not necessarily unprecedented,” said William “Buddy” Scarborough, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Texas who has studied Chicago’s population patterns. “Chicago is, once again, this destination for people who are seeking security and stability.”

To put this latest wave of migration into context, WBEZ identified three periods in Chicago’s history when the city experienced a similar — or larger — influx of newcomers: European migration at the turn of the 20th century, the Great Migration of Black Americans from the South and migration from Mexico in the 1990s and 2000s.

WBEZ analyzed census estimates on birthplace, immigration and race and ethnicity compiled by the University of Minnesota and reviewed historical census tabulations in Chicago’s Local Community Fact Books and other archival demographic records from the Municipal Reference Collection at the Harold Washington Library.

Census data show that hundreds of thousands of people throughout Chicago’s history have come to the city from elsewhere. The city’s foreign-born population hit a peak in 1930 when roughly one in every four Chicagoans — nearly 870,000 people — were born abroad, mostly in European countries.

The data also suggests there were times in the city’s history when the number of newcomers in a given year surpassed the 36,000 asylum-seekers that have arrived since 2022. For example, in 2000, during the period when migration to Chicago from Mexico was near its height, there were more than 41,000 people living in Chicago who had immigrated to the U.S. just one year earlier — about 17,000 were born in Mexico and another 5,000 were born in Poland, according to WBEZ’s analysis.

While the number of asylum-seekers arriving now is not without historical parallel, this current wave has led to a moment of reckoning for the city’s identity. There have been fierce debates over who Chicago should welcome, where migrant shelters should be located and how much the city should spend. But there has also been an outpouring of help.

Lilia Fernández, a University of Illinois at Chicago history professor, said the passionate discourse underscores an important point about the city’s history — most Chicagoans have an ancestor who was once a migrant, too.

“Somewhere along the lines in our ancestry, someone decided to come to Chicago for one reason or another and helped us to plant our roots here generations later,” Fernández said. “Unless you’re Indigenous, Native person to this land, then your people came from somewhere else.”

Early European Migration

By the time many white and European settlers arrived in Chicago in the late 1800s, most Native Americans had been forced or pressured to leave the Chicago area. In the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, the Potawatomi, Odawa and Ojibwe nations ceded the last of their land in present-day Chicago to the U.S. government.

From 1850 through 1910, census data indicate Chicago was a city full of newcomers. Most were born outside of Illinois, and many were European immigrants who contributed to much of the city’s population boom during this time.

In the 1860 and 1870 census, nearly half of Chicagoans were born in Europe — the majority from Germany and Ireland. By the beginning of the 20th century, many immigrants from other parts of Europe, such as Poland, Russia/USSR, Italy and Sweden, had also arrived in Chicago.

Maps created by the city’s Department of Development and Planning in 1976 plotting out Chicago’s settlement communities show how the growth of European immigrants exploded, with just small clusters of German and Irish communities in 1840 to nearly two dozen different ethnic groups spanning the entirety of the city by 1950.

Many new immigrants “faced housing segregation and limited opportunities in business, the trades and unions,” according to Northern Illinois University. The Near West side became “a port of entry for poor European immigrants,” according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, and grew into densely populated tenements where many workers labored long days at textile factories, stockyards and railyards in the city. The waves of new European workers also coincided with a growing labor movement, as workers joined strikes against slashed wages for railroad workers and the violent Haymarket Affair in support of an eight-hour workday.

The area drew Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr to establish the first settlement house in the U.S., the famed Hull-House, in 1889 to serve immigrants through day care, English classes, the arts and more.

In Addams’s book Twenty Years at Hull-House with Autobiographical Notes, she chronicled the ethnic enclaves that surrounded the settlement where she and others lived.

“Hull-House once stood in the suburbs, but the city has steadily grown up around it and its site now has corners on three or four foreign colonies,” Addams wrote. “Between Halsted Street and the river live about ten thousand Italians — Neapolitans, Sicilians, and Calabrians, with an occasional Lombard or Venetian. To the south on Twelfth Street are many Germans, and side streets are given over almost entirely to Polish and Russian Jews. Still farther south, these Jewish colonies merge into a huge Bohemian colony, so vast that Chicago ranks as the third Bohemian city in the world. To the northwest are many Canadian-French, clannish in spite of their long residence in America, and to the north are Irish and first-generation Americans.”

Funded by private philanthropy, the settlement grew in two decades from just one house to encompass an entire city block, said Liesl Olson, director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. It was fueled by a philosophy of serving “with, not for,” Olson said.

“To choose to live not only outside of family structures, but to choose to live among Chicago’s urban poor and to serve them — totally radical,” Olson said. “And they really reimagined what community could be in doing that.”

Classes in the arts aimed to preserve immigrants’ cultural heritage, and they extended beyond just early waves of European immigration. Mexican artist Jesús Torres trained at the Hull-House through pottery classes after he first immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s. He later became a renowned artist in Chicago with work featured in Pullman railcars and more.

“It will be a grave reproach to the American nation in another half century if the spiritual and social value of the immigrant has not been discovered,” Addams said in a 1908 address. “It is when these people give you their own spiritual life, or when you get it, not with investigations, but through a friendly comradeship, as they have preserved it among themselves, that you may benefit.”

Great Migration

Starting in the early 20th century, Chicago’s Black population began to grow steadily each decade until 1980. This growth was driven by the Great Migration, when millions of Black southerners fled racial violence in the South and settled in Northern, Midwestern and West Coast cities to pursue economic opportunities and freedom from Jim Crow laws. The city’s Black population grew from roughly 40,000 residents in 1900 to over 1 million in 1980.

WBEZ’s analysis shows that Black residents who were born in the South made up the largest share of the city’s overall Black population in 1910 through 1950. During this period, the number of Black Chicagoans born in the South increased tenfold, comprising the majority of the city’s Black population. From the 1950s and onwards, the city’s Black population continued to grow until the 1980s as more Black Southerners settled and started families in Chicago.

“Chicago had this confluence of factors as a union town, as a city with a lot of manufacturing jobs that offered stable middle-class employment for many new workers, which offered stability that they were seeking,” said Scarborough, who authored a report on Black population loss in Chicago published by UIC’s Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy. “And then it creates this sort of immigration pathway.”

The widely read Chicago Defender newspaper printed job listings and train schedules as it spurred migration to the North. It was during that era that iconic figures, such as Louis Armstrong, made their way to Chicago and Bronzeville grew into a “Black Metropolis” as an epicenter of culture and business.

Scarborough said he sees parallels between asylum-seekers who are now fleeing to Chicago to escape violence and economic instability in their home countries and the millions of Black Southerners who fled to Northern states in an effort to escape Jim Crow racism and violence and pursue economic opportunity.

“The Great Migration of Black residents was just one other instance of essentially asylum-seekers,” Scarborough said.

But Black Southerners still encountered persistent racism, segregation and violence in Chicago. Some social organizations refused to serve Black residents, leading to the formation of settlement homes dedicated to helping new Black residents adjust to life in Chicago, such as the Phyllis Wheatley Home for Girls.

Black homes were bombed, racially restrictive deeds and covenants reinforced housing segregation and the stoning and drowning of Eugene Williams, a Black teenager who was attacked after he drifted toward a whites-only beach, led to the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. Over the course of a week, 38 people were killed and hundreds were injured, and it came amid a period of lynchings and violence nationwide known as the “Red Summer.”

The racial inequities that new Black migrants faced in Chicago during and after the Great Migration were systemic and had enduring effects for generations thereafter.

“Those structures of inequality that were set in place during the Great Migration of the mid 20th century — redlining, institutional segregation and disinvestment — created the foundation that Black residents today are still facing with lower-quality schools, over policing and segregated neighborhoods,” Scarborough said. “That, in the past 20 or 30 years, paradoxically, led many Black residents in Chicago to move back to the South, where now they perceive — and the data seemed to play out — lower levels of inequality in Southern cities like Atlanta and Houston than what we see in Chicago.”

Since the 1980s, Chicago’s Black population has been on the decline. From 2000 to 2020, Chicago lost about 260,000 Black residents, more than any other city except Detroit. During that same period, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Fort Worth and several other Southern cities gained tens of thousands more Black residents, according to a WBEZ analysis.

1990s Mexican Migration

Mexican immigrants have lived in Chicago since the early 20th century. In 1924, when national immigration quotas restricted the number of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and Asia but exempted immigrants from Mexico, employers in Chicago turned to the recruitment of Mexican laborers to fill jobs in the city’s steel mills and packinghouses, said historian Mike Amezcua, associate history professor at Georgetown University and the author of Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Settlement to the Age of Gentrification.

By 1930, there were an estimated 20,000 Mexican immigrants and their descendants living in Chicago, according to 1930 census estimates and academic studies.

Many came to the U.S. under the Bracero Program, an agreement that lasted between 1942 and 1964 between the U.S. and Mexican governments to address farmworker labor shortages during World War II by providing millions of Mexican agricultural laborers short-term contracts to work on U.S. farms.

“That kind of labor was away from the cities, but eventually, many Braceros ditched their contracts and gained employment in urban factories in Chicago,” Amezcua said.

Mexican immigration to Chicago steadily climbed until its peak in the 1990s as many fled an economic crisis in Mexico and found jobs in the service sector in Chicago, Amezcua said. In recent years, the city’s Mexican population has continued to grow, though at a slower pace than growth in suburban Cook County. Estimates of the number of people living in Chicago who had lived in Mexico the year prior were not consistent until 2005. Prior to that, the most recent similar measurement of Mexican migration to the city comes from the 2000 census, which showed there were roughly 92,500 Chicagoans who had lived in Mexico five years earlier, in 1995, and were born in Mexico, according to WBEZ’s analysis.

Mexican immigrants to Chicago in previous decades likely had vastly different experiences in the city than Venezuelan asylum-seekers who have arrived in the past year-and-a-half.

In the 1960s, there were already several predominantly Mexican American enclaves in neighborhoods like Pilsen and Back of the Yards, Amezcua said. That helped provide an entry point for newly arrived immigrants to be integrated into the city’s existing social fabric through family networks and connections.

But, “there is no one Venezuelan neighborhood in Chicago, per se,” Amezcua said.

“With the Venezuelan migrants, they’ve become so visible because they’re sleeping in these makeshift shelters, they’re sleeping in police stations,” Amezcua said. “And that’s giving Chicagoans a framework to see this population as, like, not quite being incorporated into the city, they don’t have a place in the city for them. That’s the takeaway of the crisis rhetoric.”

Chicago has a small Venezuelan population relative to cities like Miami, Orlando and New York City, which have nearly five times the Venezuelan population as Chicago, according to the 2020 census.

In Chicago, the 2020 census counted roughly 4,000 Venezuelans in the city, largely living in Edgewater, Uptown and parts of Irving Park and Hermosa. Although small compared to other groups, the number of Venezuelans has more than tripled over a decade. In 2010, roughly 1,000 Venezuelans lived in Chicago and in 2000 roughly 600.

Migration patterns are also dictated by how easy or difficult it is to move from one place to another, “so it’s not surprising that 70% of the Latinos in the Chicago area are of Mexican descent or Mexican origin, because that’s our closest neighbor to the south,” said Fernández, whose research focuses on Latino history and migration.

“If our closest neighbor to the south was Peru, or Colombia or Argentina, then those triggers would be very different,” Fernández said.

Chicago’s current moment

There are also more recent parallels to the influx of asylum-seekers. At least 15,000 migrants from abroad have moved to Chicago nearly every year since 2005, the earliest period one-year migration data is reliably available for Chicago. Many came from Mexico in the mid-to-late 2000s, but starting in the 2010s, newcomers from China, India and countries in Africa have increasingly migrated to Chicago, according to a WBEZ analysis.

Since 2022, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have also arrived in Illinois through a federal program that grants Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine temporary residency and work authorization.

As of Feb. 27, more than 41,200 sponsor applications have been submitted for Illinois, with about 8,600 from Chicago, according to federal figures shared with the Illinois Department of Human Services.

It’s been a point of stark contrast to how the thousands of migrants, mostly from Venezuela, have found themselves in Chicago: without the resources of a federal program.

“I think there is a racial element to this,” Fernández said. “An assumption that, well, if they’re coming from Europe, they’re more like the main dominant population in the region. Secondly, the geopolitical considerations that we’ve been supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia, and so we find ourselves in a position where we have to welcome refugees from the Ukraine if we are to remain true to the ideals that we espouse.”

Fernández said there’s also a lack of understanding of the geopolitical context and the United States’s role in contributing to the economic instability in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.

“All three of those countries are ones in which the U.S. has waged an economic war, essentially, with sanctions and embargoes,” Fernández said. “And so in many ways, we have contributed to the conditions that have prompted people to leave those countries.”

Some migrants who trekked to Chicago have since decided to leave altogether as they face a lack of shelter, jobs and hope. The city’s struggle to support the thousands of new residents has laid bare long-standing issues, like a dearth of affordable housing.

Fernández said she would be surprised if Chicago is able to retain these thousands of migrants long-term, considering that growing economic inequality has increasingly made the city inaccessible to the working class that once flocked to Chicago in droves in the 20th century.

A 2022 UIC Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy report analyzing population trends found that “as Chicago’s population declines, working class families are leaving the region and are being replaced by a smaller number of residents holding high-paying white collar occupations and with higher levels of education.”

“Rather than a land of opportunity,” Chicago “is increasingly a land for the privileged,” the report said.

To Scarborough, the moment presents an opportunity for Chicago to learn from its past and course-correct for the future.

“Clearly, Chicago has much more to offer than the places that these asylum-seekers are fleeing. But the question that remains is, is Chicago and the city itself going to repeat some of the mistakes that it made in the past that sort of laid this foundation for decades of inequality to continue in Chicago?” he said. “Or is it going to set a different foundation that’s one rooted in support and investment of new residents in the city that can not repeat the past and change things a little bit?”

Tessa Weinberg covers city government and politics for WBEZ. Amy Qin is a data reporter for WBEZ. Archival photo research provided by WBEZ’s Justine Tobiasz.

Data methodology

WBEZ’s analysis and visualizations were created with census microdata prepared by IPUMS USA and the University of Minnesota. The microdata provide information about individuals and are drawn from representative samples of data from the federal census and American Community Survey. The data is from 1850 through 2022, although some population characteristics are only available for select census years. These are weighted estimates and do not represent actual population counts. WBEZ analyzed IPUMS data on Chicagoans by birthplace, the number of Chicagons who had lived abroad one year ago for the available census years and the number of Chicagoans who immigrated to the United States one year ago by their place of birth.