Adolfo Hernandez is being honored as a Champion of Change for working tirelessly to effectively integrate immigrants civically, linguistically, and socially into the fabric of their neighborhoods.
Growing up in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, a Mexican immigrant community on the city’s southwest side, I recall the number of family-owned businesses lining the streets on my walk to and from school --everything from restaurants and grocery stores to hair salons and dress shops. It never occurred to me then that this business corridor known as “la veintiseis” or 26th Street was one of the highest revenue generating business corridors in the city, often referred to by Mayor Rahm Emanuel as the city’s second Magnificent Mile.
Much like “la veintiseis”, immigrant business corridors around the city have always served as economic engines for neighborhoods and the city as a whole. Immigrants in Chicago and across the country are twice as likely as U.S. born individuals to start a small business and are more likely to hire locally. Small businesses are the backbone of our local economy. With a strong history of immigration and one in five Chicagoans being foreign born, we support immigrant integration because it is part of our values and because it creates economic value for our city.
In 2011 I was appointed by Mayor Emanuel to serve as the Director of Chicago’s Office of New Americans. The Office of New Americans was created by Mayor Emanuel to make Chicago the most immigrant friendly city in the country by better leveraging the contributions of immigrants through enhanced collaboration between city government, community organizations, academic and faith based institutions, and the private sector. Each of these sectors plays a vital role in welcoming immigrants and helping them successfully integrate.
With more than 140 countries represented and over 100 languages spoken in our city, Chicago is a global city with strong connections to the rest of the world, making it an attractive destination for immigrants. Immigrants arrive with varying professional skill levels, language abilities, and financial means, but they all arrive with the hope of achieving the American dream. The Office of New Americans has worked to help immigrants of all backgrounds integrate and become meaningful contributors to our civic, cultural and economic life.
In Chicago we have launched language accessible business expos in community settings on how to start a small business, navigate the licensing process, comply with tax laws, and interact with chambers of commerce. Through a partnership between Chicago Public Libraries, United States Citizenship and Immigrations Services (USCIS), and community based organizations we launched the Chicago New Americans Initiative offering naturalization assistance in 27 neighborhood libraries. We are conducting training with Chicago Public School counselors to provide Chicago’s DREAMers and their families with tailored support so students can excel in the classroom and obtain guidance in applying to a college or university; ensuring that our undocumented students have the information they need to achieve a higher education, access financial resources and seek a bright future.
Immigrants remain crucial drivers of our city’s economic growth and cultural vitality. While other cities may work to make themselves less welcoming toward immigrants, we choose to value their contributions, recognizing the importance of immigrants to Chicago’s future.
Adolfo Hernandez serves as the Director of Chicago’s Office of New Americans (ONA). Under his leadership the ONA has launched the New Americans Small Business Series, the Chicago New Americans Initiative.