Chicago’s burgeoning, diverse Asian-American community faces challenges
Devon Avenue on Chicago’s North Side is vastly different from the coastal city in India that Sam Varghese left two years ago. Yet, in this growing population of old and new Asian-American immigrants, he has found his life’s work registering them to vote.
Though Varghese, who came to the United States on a family visa, has not been here long enough to obtain his own voter’s card, he can draw from an ample pool. In the past decade, the Chicago area has seen an explosion of new residents from India, the Philippines, China and other Asian countries, part of a national surge that pushed Asian-Americans ahead of Latinos as the fastest-growing immigrant group in country, according to the 2010 census.
The Asian-American population in the six-county metro area grew 39 percent from 2000 to 2010, creating a burgeoning community of more than 580,000 that increasingly has migrated away from its hub on Devon to the suburbs. But along with the rapid growth has come a barrage of social and economic issues that set the Midwest apart from other regions with higher concentrations of Asian-Americans.
Contrary to their stereotype as “model minorities,” many Asian-Americans in the Chicago area — home to 87 percent of Asian-Americans in Illinois — live in poverty and lack education, problems that are exacerbated by inadequate language and job skills, according to a study released Thursday at a national conference of Asian-American organizations meeting in Chicago.
In such a diverse community of more than 25 ethnic groups, needs and interests differ considerably, making it difficult for community organizers such as Varghese to get people to coalesce around a common cause. As a result, the community, while swelling in numbers, is splintered and has struggled to build the political muscle needed to demand attention.
“I tell people it’s their right, privilege and responsibility,” said Varghese, a 34-year-old community organizer for the Asian American Institute, an advocacy group in Chicago. “People don’t think their vote matters, but (voting) is an important way to get our voices heard.”
The report, compiled by the Asian American Institute and the Washington-based Asian American Justice Center, is the first of its kind to analyze 2010 census data to determine the economic and social status of Asian-Americans in the Midwest. It is the focal point of the two-day civil rights and social justice conference that brought together hundreds of professionals, community activists and others to discuss issues affecting Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.
The study paints a dismal picture in the aftermath of the recession. In contrast to more established communities in California and New York, where Asian-Americans are more likely to be among the highest-income and best-educated immigrants, Chicago’s Asian-American community saw a 40 percent increase in the number living in poverty — a growth rate higher than all other racial groups, according to researchers.
One in 3 Asian-Americans have difficulty speaking English, and adults 25 and older are less likely than whites to have a high school diploma. Asian-Americans also suffered because of the stagnant job market. From 2007 to 2010, their number of unemployed in Illinois grew by 200 percent, the study found.
“A lot of people, when they think of Asian-Americans — if they think of them at all — think of the model-minority myth. It’s the idea that Asian-Americans, as a recent minority group, are well-educated and therefore doing fine in terms of finances,” said Marita Etcubanez, program director for the Asian American Justice Center. “But if you disaggregate the data, you see that while some segments are doing well, there are some that are definitely struggling and need help.”
The Chicago area has become increasingly attractive to immigrants because of its diverse businesses and large corporations that have a global outlook. But it also has become a relocation area, drawing immigrants from other parts of the country looking for opportunities. Although the largest concentration of Asian-Americans are in Cook, DuPage and Lake counties, Kane, McHenry and Will counties saw their numbers more than double.
Advocates have long pushed for political and legislative changes that would give Asian-Americans a stronger voice in choosing legislators and other elected officials. Asian-Americans also have a huge stake in issues such as affirmative action and immigration policy, said Tuyet Le, executive director of the Asian American Institute.
That makes voter outreach efforts crucial, particularly during the presidential election year, she said, adding that voter registration among Asian-Americans in Illinois increased 53 percent from 2000 to 2008.
“There is a large number of Asian-Americans who are undocumented. Sometimes we’re not as vocal, and we’re hoping someone else will fight that fight,” said Le. “But we have to realize that it’s important to stand up and voice our concerns because when policies come down, (policymakers) may write things in a particular way that doesn’t benefit us.”
Redistricting has been a particularly difficult issue in the community, Le said, because of population patterns. But last year, Chicago’s first Asian-American alderman, Ameya Pawar, an Indian, was elected, in the 47th Ward.
“The redistricting process is difficult in terms of the way our communities are dispersed, which impacts the fact that there aren’t districts that have large numbers of Asian-Americans,” Le said. “But there is potential and things are beginning to happen now. Ald. Pawar won in an area that did not have a large number of Asian-Americans.”
This year, Illinois was the first state to be required by the U.S. Justice Department to offer ballots printed in Hindi because of its population surge of South Asians. Poll workers who speak Hindi, Gujarati and Urdu also must be on hand in some polling places. Indian-Americans represent the largest ethnic group among Asian-Americans in the Chicago area, with a population of more than 180,000.
“One thing that’s unique about Illinois is that South Asians are so prominent and comprise a large part of the Asian-American population. That’s not true in all parts of the country,” said Ami Gandi, executive director of the South Asian American Policy and Research Institute in Chicago. “That’s why it’s so important to have South Asians at the table when issues concerning Asian-Americans are being discussed.”
Asian-Americans have suffered from home foreclosures as well as social issues such as domestic violence, substance abuse and crime among young people, according to Kiran Siddiqui, executive director of the Hamdard Center, a social services agency in the Devon Avenue area.
Over the past two years, the agency has seen a 25 percent increase in families applying for public benefits such as food stamps and cash grants, she said. Many are moving into joint-family living arrangements because they can’t afford to live on their own.
“Things are very bad for them if they come and ask for help, especially from the government. … Asking for a hand is a dishonor to them and their families,” Siddiqui said. “But unfortunately they are faced with not being able to pay rent or buy groceries.”
Five years ago, Asian-Americans owned more than 59,000 businesses throughout Illinois, employing more than 100,000 people, the study found. But during the recession, many businesses, such as Korean-owned dry cleaners and beauty supply stores, shut down.
“About 40 percent of our clients that have small businesses have maintained them, but the other 60 percent have not been able to maintain it, and closed shop,” Siddiqui said. “They’re not trying to stay one step head. They’re actually just trying to keep their head afloat.”
In many ways, 63-year-old Carmelita Dagmante considers herself lucky since arriving in Chicago from the Philippines 12 years ago. A manager at a laundry on West Devon Avenue, she works a 14-hour shift six days a week, earning money to send back home to her family.
With three grandchildren in school in the Philippines, including one in college, Dagmante said she sends about half her paycheck home to cover their tuition and other expenses. She keeps enough to cover her rent, utilities and groceries but little else.
“That is my life here,” she said, tears trickling down her face. “I’m happy doing it. I’m working for them.”
Varghese, the outreach worker from India, also has dreams. In Kerala, India, he said, he earned three master’s degrees, in sociology, anthropology and religious studies. His long-term goal, he said, is to work hard at his contract job as an outreach worker and gain more responsibility.
“This is our country,” Varghese said, armed with voter registration forms and informational fliers that he hands out along Devon. “We’re not aliens. We need to participate in this process so our government pays attention to us.”
Interesting article about the population of Asian Americans in Chicago. Mostly focuses on South Asians.