In the basement of city hall, Adelita Hernandez is an outfit of one. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Hernandez was hired in 2006 by the City of Evanston to provide verbal and written translations for its Spanish-speaking residents. Her short title might read “outreach specialist,” but for many Spanish speakers she represents an essential link to a society they would otherwise understand only by trial and error.

Hernandez serves many roles, all revolving around demystifying the services and organizations that can help them settle in Evanston. On any given day, she might ride along with code enforcement officials during housing inspections, in case there is a language issue, or she might be processing applications for the state’s All Kids insurance program.

Evanston’s approach to accommodating immigrants is progressive, Hernandez said, even if only for the fact she has a job with so much responsibility. Indeed, only a few communities employ someone with anything approaching Hernandez’ job description.

But, despite the city’s longstanding reputation as a welcoming community for immigrants, even Hernandez admits there is room for improvement. For one thing, despite her best efforts, Hernandez is just one person. In her absence, arrangements have to be made so other bilingual city staff can take her role and assist Spanish speakers. And the city has so far failed to translate most official documents aside from park district brochures, and some other minor documents, making Hernandez the only source of information for many.

Evanston isn’t alone in facing these challenges. In many ways, communities across Chicago’s six-county region are playing catch-up when it comes to addressing the needs of their foreign-born residents, according to a Chicago Reporter survey of 31 municipalities that represent new immigrant ports of entry–”communities where, according to census data, the foreign-born population surged dramatically between 1990 and 2000.

The survey shows that communities are still unprepared to address the needs and impact of an increasingly diverse demographic that is only expected to grow. Among the findings:

* Five communities do not translate any of their documents, including newsletters, permits or ordinances.

* Less than half, 14, of the communities have local organizations that monitor issues such as human rights and housing within the immigrant community.

* All communities employ bilingual officers in their police departments, but only two communities require language or cultural training for police officers.

* Foreign-born residents have been elected to municipal councils in only two communities–Aurora and Evanston. Seven communities do not have any foreign-born residents in elected or appointed positions, while officials were unsure if any foreign-born residents were appointed in 11 communities.

In some communities, including Carpentersville and Waukegan, officials have been considering measures that immigrant advocates have argued unfairly target undocumented immigrants:

* None of the communities has so far instituted policies prohibiting landlords from renting or employers from hiring undocumented immigrants, though similar measures have been proposed in Carpentersville.

* All but two police departments say they limit immigration enforcement to only assisting federal immigration authorities upon request. But at least three communities–”Waukegan, Carpentersville and Ben-senville–”have requested “287g” federal training, which is provided to local police to enforce immigration matters. Elgin has instituted a policy of screening foreign-born arrestees who are booked in the city jail on charges that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has deemed deportable.

These measures, proposed or implemented, have brought the immigration debate to the forefront of local politics in communities like Carpentersville and Waukegan, whose Hispanic populations have grown significantly. The officials lamented that proposed ordinances have brought them the unwanted attention from both sides of the immigration debate, often setting the stage for both pro- and anti-immigrant groups to descend on public meetings or to stage rancorous rallies in their communities. This has hampered the abilities of local governments to carry out their normal functions, officials said.

Sylvia Puente, director of the Center for Metropolitan Chicago Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, said many suburban leaders are beginning to recognize–albeit slowly–that they must address the impact and needs of immigrants in their communities.

Puente added that the sense of urgency on this issue would be crucial. “We can’t afford to wait for that process to unfold how it did a generation ago. We really believe, if that process just happens over a generation or two, we’re losing people’s contributions,” said Puente, who has, in partnership with the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, an association of mayors from 273 communities in the Chicago region, helped convene a coalition of local officials to develop strategies for integrating immigrants.

Edwin Silverman, chief of the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Services, said immigrants and residents in their communities will have to work to understand each other–”or the potential for problems will grow.

“Time and again across the country when there has been intergroup conflict, it inevitably stems from the fact that these groups hadn’t been talking to each other, don’t understand each other and the powers-that-be had not provided opportunities for the groups to meet and talk,” he said.

Tensions in some communities have already gone beyond resentment among neighbors.

Virginia Martinez, a legislative staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said more allegations of discriminatory housing practices, racial profiling and questionable election processes are bubbling to the surface in suburban areas.

And many of these cases, Martinez said, go unheard because victims are afraid to speak up. “Sometimes, it’s hard for us to do anything about them because the individuals affected don’t want to be plaintiffs in a lawsuit because they are either undocumented or have family members who are undocumented,” she said. “Even if they are U.S. citizens, they don” want to run the risk that they will be targeted by local police or local government.”

Some attributed the slow pace of instituting immigrant integration measures to the fact that there’s no single model that could be adopted since the needs of one community are vastly different from another. “There is no cookie-cutter approach,” said Jim Norris, village manager of Hoffman Estates.

Ultimately, the path to more sensible integration approaches won’t come until foreign-born residents demand them, advocates said. “Voting is a very key element in making one’s voice heard in the community,” said Fred Tsao, policy director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, a consortium of community organizations that has lobbied for statewide support for immigrant citizenship initiatives. “You can’t win if you don’t play.”

Chicago’s suburbs have long been a destination for families moving up the economic ladder. But, in the past 18 years, the suburbs have also become “ports of entry” as an increasing number of immigrants are skipping a traditional first-stop in Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods.

“There has been this huge shift to the suburbs with the majority of incoming immigrants going straight to the suburbs,” said Rob Paral, a research fellow at the American Immigration Law Foundation studying immigrant demographics in the Chicago region and nationwide. “If you’re concerned with immigrant integration policies, the suburbs are where the action is.”

All of the communities, from the large cities of Aurora, Joliet and Naperville to the small villages of West Chicago and Bensenville, have been permanently changed by the arrival of immigrants.

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of foreign-born residents doubled in the 31 surveyed communities to a total of 366,567. Overall, foreign-born residents represented 21 percent of the total population in those suburbs, according to the Census.

An analysis of census data shows varying levels of English-language abilities. Nearly 30 percent of households in those communities speak a language other than English at home.

The figures illustrate the potential gap in services. While all of the communities responded they have bilingual staff and police personnel, the sheer size of the immigrant populations, from Cicero’s 37,000 to Round Lake Beach’s 5,500, indicates the enormity of the challenge facing these communities.

According to a 2006 report Paral prepared for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, sensible policies to better integrate immigrants would be beneficial to the region. The report found that immigrants were a driving source of workforce for key sectors in the state’s economy and replacing native-born workers who were aging or moving out of the state. Immigrants also represented nearly half of new homeowners in Illinois, according to the report.

“Illinois policymakers need to realize that immigration policy is economic development policy,” Paral wrote in the report. “The numbers of immigrants allowed to enter and the way in which they are welcomed and supported has increasingly significant impacts not only on the immigrants but on the larger state economy and native population.”

Working out of a small cubicle in the city manager’s office on the second floor of Naperville’s City Hall, Katie Wernberg, the west suburban city’s community grants coordinator, has learned a lot about Asian immigrants who make up 7 percent of the population. Under Wernberg’s watch, Naperville has translated information about its fair housing ordinance. Last year, she secured funding for research on fair housing to better understand some of the housing needs and challenges faced by the city’s growing immigrant population.

Wernberg is among a growing number of local officials who are working with immigrant residents. Last year, communities in the six-county region participated in a forum to address the integration issues faced by suburbs and their Latino populations–”the largest immigrant group in the region. The Metropolitan Mayors Caucus published the forum’s findings in November 2007. The report identified key steps communities could take, including providing cultural competency to staff, promoting cultural events and encouraging civic participation.

After the roundtables, Addison began a pilot initiative designed to promote discussion on diversity. Addison’s work shows that several communities, including those surveyed by the Reporter, are taking positive steps.

In Hoffman Estates, local police frequently attend cultural festivals and events to foster a dialogue with residents outside of emergency situations. Village Manager Norris said he’s aware of one foreign-born resident who heads a municipal department, and that Hoffman Estates has long worked to embrace diversity.

Wernberg believes her efforts are paying off. This year, the Ray Chinese School was able to resume its Taste of Chinese festival, which was canceled last year because of a lack of funds. This year’s festival was underwritten in part by the city through a fund Wernberg established for cultural events.

Principal Boqiu Guo praised Wernberg for her work in helping fund the Taste of Chinese. Students were able to practice their cooking, dancing and share their knowledge about Chinese culture with other local residents.

Diana Yang, who moved to Naperville 12 years ago and helped organize the Taste of Chinese, said that the city feels like a welcoming place. “Naperville has been very supportive of diversity, that’s why we originally moved here,” she said.

Some communities appear to have taken a different approach to their increasingly diverse new residents, often with negative consequences. For better or worse, towns like Carpentersville, Elgin and Waukegan have become synonymous with Hazelton, Pa., as places unfriendly to immigrants. In recent years, these communities have pursued measures to limit housing or employment opportunities to undocumented immigrants, or have established measures that advocates believe unfairly target immigrants.

Officials in these communities believe media influence has exaggerated or misconstrued their policies.

Waukegan officials drew protests last year from immigrant advocates when they announced they would pursue funding for local police training to begin immigration proceedings. But Mayor Richard Hyde emphatically states that the city “is not in the immigration business,” and is not interested in deporting undocumented immigrants.

But the perception of Waukegan as an anti-immigrant community stretches back at least to the mid-’90s, when the city settled claims with the U.S. Justice Department that found code enforcement officials had targeted Latinos by attempting to enforce an ordinance that restricted how many family members could live in a house. The city was ordered to repeal the ordinance and pay $175,000 to those who were subjected to the unfair enforcement.

Still today, many immigrants feel unwelcome in Waukegan, said Maria Elena Jonas, director of the Holy Family Immigrant Center there. “There are a lot of people who don’t want to come to Waukegan, not even to visit family,” out of fear they will be ticketed or have their vehicle towed, she said.

In Carpentersville, village officials proposed to prohibit landlords from renting to and employers from hiring undocumented workers in 2006. Village Manager Craig G. Anderson said that the measures have now been tabled indefinitely–but not before they landed Carpentersville at the center of Illinois immigration debate and around the country. In August, for example, the controversy surrounding the village’s proposals became the focus of a 8,000-word cover story in The New York Times Magazine.

Anderson acknowledged that the immigration debates have overshadowed and disrupted other aspects of village government. “The last year and a half has been somewhat more difficult because of whether we should do something about immigration enforcement,” he said.

Advocates say that, in the end, only political empowerment can usher in more progressive approaches to integration that are more sensitive to the needs of a diverse immigrant population.

In some cases, the children of immigrants are now leading the charge for such change. Jacqueline Herrera, director of legalization at the Chicago-based Instituto de Progreso Latino, is among a group of business owners and local advocates who formed the Waukegan Leadership Council in light of her hometown Waukegan’s pursuit of 287g training and to empower immigrants there to take a stand politically.

Some advocates see positive changes taking place. For example, they point to Bill Foster’s recent victory in Dennis Hastert’s longtime Republican district that includes Aurora as an indication that more immigrants, who are increasingly applying for citizenship are also participating in the electoral process in districts that have seen the largest population gains.

“The only way change is going to happen is through a political avenue,” said Herrera, a daughter of El Salvadorian immigrants.

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