There is salsa dance night at Radio Maria and Cowboy Monkey in downtown Champaign.
Latino food trucks pepper the landscape across Champaign- Urbana.
An almost completely Spanish- speaking community of 600 families lives in the Shadow Wood Mobile Home Park.
These are the small and large signs of the growth of the Latino and Hispanic community in Champaign County in the last decade.
In fact, the Hispanic population, which is composed mostly of those from Mexico, has more than doubled as the fastest growing population in the county – increasing from about 5,200 residents in 2000 to more than 10,600 residents in 2010.
And generally, Census numbers for Hispanics are considered low because of the number of residents who may not have proper documentation and do not want to answer the census.
But whether they are here with or without documentation, most Latino immigrants have eventually settled in Champaign County because they believe they could create more prosperous lives here than in their own countries.
But for many other immigrants in Champaign County, living in America is far more difficult, frightening and lonely than they ever expected.
“Everything is so different over here … the school system, childrearing . . . no insurance, no doctors, difficulty buying medicine if you are sick. Yet it doesn’t stop people from coming,” said Anh Ha Ho earlier, who is co-director of the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center and an immigrant herself from Vietnam.
The charity organization in Urbana assists refugees and immigrants, especially those with limited English skills, as they struggle to find jobs and affordable housing.
Many of the Latino immigrants work in low paying jobs, pricing merchandise or stocking shelves. They work late at night, cleaning schools, hospitals and offices; they work in the backs of restaurants and on the floors of factories; they work hidden in the fields, in the shadow of tall corn.
“They are invisible,” Guadalupe Abreu has said, a bilingual counselor at the refugee center. “Of course, they are not invisible. They are here. But society tends to push them to the side.”
They also face a set of challenges that they may not have expected in the land of opportunity in Central Illinois. A review of reports of the past two years from CU-CitizenAccess.org, an online community newsroom, reveals the wide range of issues.
– The quality of housing and the need for affordable rentals
– Language barriers in everyday life including medical care
– Children enrolling in school systems confronted with a wave of non-English speaking students
– Questions about racial profiling in traffic stops and the fear of being pulled off the street, into jail and into the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) system for deportation.
More than half of the Latino population rents rather than owns and most of the county’s Latino population lives in Champaign-Urbana, where rental rates have steadily increased.
Census data and federal reports have shown that between 2000 and 2010, fair market rents for a two-bedroom apartment in Champaign County increased more than 30 percent.
“Probably the biggest issue that it pointed to was the lack of affordable housing, rental housing, for extremely low-income people,” Kerri Spear, neighborhood programs manager at the City of Champaign, said earlier this year.
She added, “When you are earning less than 30 percent of the median family income, the ability for you to pay for your market rent in Champaign-Urbana is impossible.”
Local college students not only drive up the rental price in Champaign-Urbana, but typically get the best pick of rental units in the best condition, she said.
Shadow Wood and Isolation
About 10 percent of Champaign’s Latino population lives in Shadow Wood Mobile Home Park. It is attractive for working class Latinos because of its affordability and low crime. As a result, the Latino population has more than quadrupled in the residential park over the past 10 years.
Yet, many of the park’s residents are isolated from the surrounding community by language barriers and a lack of public facilities, the Rev. Eugene Barnes has said.
He runs a local community organization a few blocks south.
“It’s not that there’s a self-imposed exilic attitude from Shadow Wood,” Barnes has said. “They would love to be part of what’s going on in the community.”
Language and education
The Latino student enrollment also has more than doubled over the past decade. This has placed an increasing demand on schools to provide bilingual classes and other programs to help those students excel in school.
The Urbana School District hired Lucia Maldonado as a parent liaison to build bridges between non-native English speaking parents and the schools.
“There’s no translation system, all the information is in English [and these families], what can they do?” Maldonado has said. “They need kids to learn English and translate.”
Parents often rely on their children in their dealings with the community, such as visits to doctor’s offices and paying bills.
Maldonado also said she realized she needed to better integrate the Latino students into the community.
“It’s not just a language barrier but a cultural one,” Maldonado said earlier. “The Latinos were not participating in after school programs; they were going home and not seeing the school as a place” for them.
Mike Doyle, executive director of the University YMCA, said driver’s licenses pose a problem across Illinois for Latinos.
Undocumented immigrants cannot get an Illinois driver’s license, which means getting pulled over may result in a detention under a federal policy that aims to remove undocumented criminals.
Not having a driver’s license figured in 21 percent of the 4,174 citations or arrests involving Latinos in Champaign from 2007 to 2011, according a Hoy review of arrest and citation data.
Advocacy groups have raised questions about racial profiling, but police have said it is a normal part of carrying out their jobs.
Francisco Baires, community programs director at the University YMCA, said he believes downstate communities lack Chicago’s resources and cultural centers for immigrants.
“We are just two hours outside of Chicago, but we are a world apart,” Baires said. “People are so far in the shadows that they stay as far removed as possible,” he said. — Compiled from CU-CitizenAccess.org reports