Struggle for rights grows with immigrant population

CRYSTAL LAKE – Janeth Talavera asked a simple question to the students in her dual language class.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

One by one, students expressed desires to become lawyers or doctors until one of the Hispanic students said he wanted to work at Burger King. But after hearing more responses, the student raised his hand and asked whether he could change his answer and be something different.

Talavera assured the student that he could be whatever he wanted to be, but she was reminded of the challenges facing immigrants and their children.

“I see it all the time, especially at the elementary level,” Talavera said of the lack of confidence from young immigrant students or children from immigrant families. “They see their parents working at restaurants or in landscaping or construction and don’t realize they are capable of anything else.”

Talavera, who was a teacher at Crystal Lake School District 47 before deciding to move to Boston next month, remembers the challenges of coming to Woodstock from Mexico when she was 7 years old.

But even then, she was able to obtain citizenship by her senior year of high school and enjoy more opportunities – especially in financial assistance for college – her friends could not receive.

While some steps such as the DREAM Act – which provides financial assistance for college to those who came to the country as minors – have helped, there are still many barriers for a growing population.

“There are way more [immigrant] college students than when I was in college,” Talavera said. “But there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Talavera plans to work with an organization in Boston that helps young immigrants get into college programs.

The divisive issue of immigration is not likely to go away as the population continues to grow throughout the country and expand out of urban areas.

In the past decade, McHenry County’s total population has grown about 20 percent while its immigrant population has skyrocketed nearly 70 percent in the same time, according to the most recent census. The trend reflected the statewide numbers, as immigrants accounted for more than half of Illinois’ total growth in the past 10 years.

The Latino population was the driving force in the increase, rising 40 percent to claim roughly 17 percent of the total population of the suburban Chicago area. Naturalized citizens also increased 25 percent in Illinois from 2000-10.

Emmanuel Martinez, who came to Woodstock 14 years ago, said the growing population is noticeable as the subject of immigration is no longer as taboo as when he first came.

Martinez graduated from Woodstock High School and McHenry County College and is now working toward degrees in psychology and sociology at Columbia College in Chicago. The 28-year-old has paid cash for many of his courses because he is not eligible for federal loans.

“I always tell my American friends it’s like I am running a race with one leg,” Martinez said of the challenge of being an immigrant. “It’s difficult just to get an opportunity sometimes and that’s all we want. Here you have to grab it and earn it, and I think I have earned it.”

Carlos Acosta, an adviser for the Hispanic student club at Woodstock High School, has known Martinez since his high school days and said he was a crucial part of advocating for immigrants locally.

Acosta, who came from Colombia when he was 4, said he works with high school students to get all immigrants – legal or not – to contribute to the community and show the value they bring.

“We live in a media culture where a negative immigrant perception is much more easy to portray, but there are a bunch of people here in McHenry County who are coming out of the shadows,” Acosta said. “They’re saying ‘I’m not gonna live in fear anymore. I’m undocumented, but I’m also top 10 in my class.’ They are positive examples.”

Both Acosta and Martinez continue to talk with lawmakers and local representatives about immigration issues and have been pleased with the progress. Acosta said the political landscape for immigrants was terrible in 2007, but now there is some movement with a 13-year path to citizenship proposed in the Senate.

Martinez said he knows there are numerous challenges ahead, but he just hopes for a slightly better future for each successive generation. It’s why he keeps a Martin Luther King Jr. quote with him at all times for when progress seems far out of reach.

“If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”