AURORA, Ill. — 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, about 40 miles to the west.
"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. Even as the steep growth of the Hispanic population in Chicago tapered off, the arrival of Hispanics helped make Kendall County west of Aurora the fastest growing county in the U.S. for several years during the decade.
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.
"Now immigrants are living in a lot of places where there were no immigrants 20 or 30 years ago," said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
Singer said the foreign-born population in the suburban U.S. has surged over the past decade and then has branched out to areas even further from urban centers. She said she envisions the trend continuing through this decade.
The surge in Illinois' Hispanic population, from 1.53 million in 2000 to 2.03 million last year, helped sustain the state's 3.3 percent population growth, U.S. Census data show.
Most of that was in the counties surrounding Chicago's Cook County. The Hispanic population grew 65 percent in Kane County to the west, more than doubled in Will County to the southwest and more than quadrupled in Kendall, which includes parts of Aurora.
Over the same decade, Chicago and Cook County lost population, and Chicago added only 25,000 more Hispanic residents.
That has led to significant political, economic and cultural changes for the suburbs.
It will mean more attention when it comes to the once-a-decade process of drawing boundaries for legislative and congressional districts. Overall, Illinois is slated to lose a congressional seat, but federal and state laws designed to protect minorities' voting rights mean areas with minority growth have to be considered when the lines are drawn.
Some of the towns say the growth has helped them weather the economic downturn, but presented other challenges.
Area school districts have had to struggle with overcrowding. East Aurora Schools, with about 13,500 students, gained more than 2,100 students over the decade. The average class size for first grade went from around 21 students in 2002 to 26 students in 2010, according to state education officials.
In Montgomery, officials say the population influx means a lower tax rate, a lower cost for services per resident and more federal funding. The schools have programs like the thriving dual-language immersion program in the Oswego Community Unit School District, which includes parts of Montgomery.
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.
When he arrived in 2000, Molina said he went to school to learn English, but quickly found that he could use Spanish everywhere. Even now, living in Montgomery, he comes to Aurora to shop, run errands and socialize. Numerous Mexican grocery stores thrive in Hispanic neighborhoods. The stream of customers at a vehicle registration business – making it easier for residents of Aurora to take cars to Mexico and the other way around – is constant.
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 the farther suburb of Yorkville, his work, social life and shopping is 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."