Immigrants moving to suburbs
When Fernando Molina left central Mexico to move to Illinois, he was searching for affordable housing, job opportunities and established Hispanic neighborhoods with grocery stores, bakeries and clothing shops.
He didn't head for Chicago, a well-known magnet for Mexicans pondering the journey north. Instead, he settled in Aurora.
"It's like Mexico inside the United States," said Molina, 37, a social worker who has lived in the U.S. for more than a decade and now assists other immigrant families. "You can find everything in the stores."
Over the last decade, tens of thousands of others have followed his path to Aurora -- more than 35,000 of about 55,000 new residents between 2000 and 2010 were Hispanic. The city, which is now 40 percent Hispanic, has surpassed Rockford to become Illinois' second-largest city.
The trend of immigrants heading directly to American suburbs instead of starting in a major city intensified from 2000 to 2010 -- and was one factor in Illinois' 32.5 percent increase in Hispanic population in that period, according to recently released U.S. Census data.
Demographers say they aren't just seeing it around Chicago. The same thing is happening around other major cities that have long been entry points for immigrants, such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
For many Hispanics in northern Illinois, Aurora supplanted Chicago as a cultural hub, and the growth has transformed smaller and smaller towns.
Montgomery, a few miles south of Aurora, tripled in population to more than 18,000 since 2000. Nearly 4,000 of the new residents were Hispanic, when only 700 lived there in 2000. Among them are Molina, his wife and their two young children, who decided to move to Montgomery last year for more space, smaller schools and better housing options.
At a time when Rockford's unemployment rate hovered at 14 percent, Aurora's was 9 percent. The suburb's Hispanic enclaves, which are generally concentrated around an aging city center with little new development, helped fill in housing and attract business, Aurora officials said.
"This really is a city of immigrants," said Mayor Tom Weisner, who sees the Hispanic growth as a continuation of Aurora's history, which for decades has attracted immigrants for manufacturing and railroad work.
To Frank Navarro, who sells real estate, Aurora is now what Chicago once was.
Navarro, who moved from Mexico City to Aurora decades ago, remembers starting Aurora's first Mexican soccer club in 1971. It's now grown to three leagues with thousands of players. And though he bought a second home in Yorkville, his work, social life and shopping are in Aurora.
"My heart is in Aurora. I love Aurora. I work here, I do pretty much everything during the day," he said. "I'm just sleeping in Yorkville."