Suburb's Hispanics feeling unwelcome after election
By Ray Quintanilla and Carolyn Starks
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published April 21, 2007
Some Latinos said they were afraid of being deported. Others wondered about being treated fairly in Carpentersville, a suburban community where they found jobs, bought homes and sent their kids to school.
These concerns -- always lingering in the back of their minds -- have been heightened for many Hispanics, who say they feel threatened following the election of three village trustees who campaigned to crack down on illegal immigration in a suburb that is 40 percent Latino.
"This was pretty bad," Hilario Savedra, 62, said of Tuesday's vote, pausing amid a flow of pedestrian traffic at a popular grocery store in the Meadowdale Shopping Center.
"I've been in this community for more than 20 years, and I hate to think someone will tell me I'm no longer wanted here. This is my community, too."
Within minutes of claiming victory, Paul Humpfer, Judy Sigwalt and first-time candidate Keith Hinz promised to bring a proposed ordinance called the Illegal Alien Immigration Relief Act back to the forefront. The proposal, which has divided this community for months, calls for fining landlords who rent to undocumented residents.
The measure also would suspend the licenses of businesses employing them. It's modeled after a controversial ordinance in Hazelton, Pa., currently tied up in the courts.
"We're going to wait until the outcome of Hazelton but we can discuss this while Hazelton is going on," Sigwalt said, vowing to push the measure forward. "If it passes, we're good to go. If it doesn't pass, we're that much smarter."
With the help of trustee Kay Teeter, who has supported efforts to crack down on undocumented residents, Sigwalt and the two others say they now have four votes on Carpentersville's seven-member board, enough to bring the issue back for public debate.
But even if the measure never gets approved, talk about illegal immigrants here has sharpened the community's focus on its burgeoning Hispanic population. At least two trustees have talked about making English the official language at Village Hall.
City officials declined to even hazard a guess as to how many undocumented people live in the community. Precise numbers aren't available.
Long before Latinos began arriving here in the 1970s in search of manufacturing jobs, Carpentersville was struggling for an identity.
Despite a population of 37,000 residents, it has no downtown.
The Fox River cuts the community in half, with acres of small ranch-style homes on the east side and sprawling new subdivisions with homes costing more than $1 million on the other.
By the 1990s, Hispanics were populating neighborhoods once built for GIs returning from World War II and the Korean War. In the post-war boom, Carpentersville quickly became known as a place where a vet could buy a house with little or no money down.
Today, one can see Mexican flags hanging from the windows of these houses or the names of Mexican hometowns scrawled on the rear windows of cars.
The current crisis, some say, began to percolate over allegations of crowded housing and questions about unpaid ambulance bills that two trustees blamed on illegal immigrants. Concerns about funding morphed into a debate about undocumented residents.
A spokesman for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said Carpentersville has been warned against advancing its anti-immigrant ordinance. Local governments lack the legal authority to check a person's immigration status, he said.
"We have told them this is unconstitutional because immigration is within the purview of the federal government," said Ricardo Meza, the legal fund's Midwest regional counsel.
The Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center estimates that about 35.7 million foreign-born people were living in the U.S. in 2004. Of that total, about 10 million are undocumented and about 80 percent are from Mexico and across Latin America.
Some of those who oppose the Carpentersville measure were particularly critical of a flier distributed to 2,000 homes the day before the election. It asked: "Are you tired of sending lunch money with your children while illegal aliens get a free breakfast and lunch?"
"Every item on that list is true," said Jerry Christopherson, who helped lead the pro-ordinance campaign. "I've lived in Carpentersville for 60 years, and, yes, it is a huge problem," he said of illegal immigration.
Some longtime residents such as Mike Connolly search for middle ground. Carpentersville has plenty of legal Hispanics, and it would be unfair to lump them with the undocumented, he said.
Maria Zavala, an immigrant from El Salvador, said she's more confused about the future than at any time since arriving nine years ago and landing a job with a meat processing company. Her residency status, she said, isn't anyone's business.
"I've heard talk some of the leaders in Carpentersville want to knock on the doors and tell Hispanics, 'you're not welcome here,'" she said. "That's wrong."