In a Massachusetts city, immigration changes bolster the local economy
Guatemalan bakeries, Honduran restaurants and Salvadoran markets are joining an already ethnically diverse mix of businesses in downtown Chelsea, a tiny industrial city across the Mystic River from Boston.
Among them is Catracho’s, a modest Honduran restaurant recently purchased by Johanna Mateo, who was born in New York and raised in Honduras until she was 12, when she joined her older sister in Chelsea.
“I always wanted to reinvest in Chelsea,” said Mateo, 27, who plans to expand to a vacant storefront next door. “I like the roots it’s set within the Latin American community, and I want to keep it that way.”
Chelsea (population 40,000) is a microcosm of broader changes sweeping the United States, as the number of Central American immigrants increases and the number of Mexican immigrants decreases. Mexico generated one of the largest immigration waves in U.S. history, starting in 1965 and lasting well into this century, until an improved Mexican economy and lower birthrates helped reverse the trend. Now, more immigrants are fleeing poverty and violence in Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle.
Among immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, Mexicans still make up the largest group, but that number fell to 5 million in 2017 from 7 million a decade earlier, while the number of Central Americans in the U.S. illegally rose by 400,000 to 1.9 million, and the number of Asians also grew, the Pew Research Center reported last month. Nationwide, Pew estimated 10.5 million people in the U.S. illegally, down from a peak of 12.2 million a decade earlier.
The dynamic is playing out at the state level, said Jeffrey Passel, co-author of the report. Only five states saw statistically significant increases from 2007 to 2017, led by Massachusetts and followed by Maryland. Both are magnets for Central Americans. California, with its large numbers of Mexicans, and other immigrant-heavy states such as Florida, Illinois, New Jersey and New York have fewer people in the country illegally.
The changes extend to immigrants regardless of legal status.
In Massachusetts, 8% of immigrants are Central Americans, while less than 1% are Mexican, according to census data analyzed by the Migration Policy Institute. In Maryland, 24% of immigrants are Central American, compared with only 4% Mexican. Nationwide, 33% of immigrants are Central American and 25% are Mexican.
The demographic shifts are transforming the Boston area and helping fuel its economic boom, said Luc Schuster, director of the Boston Indicators project.
As recently as 1990, most foreign-born residents in the area hailed from European nations. Today, China, the Dominican Republic and Brazil top the list, he said. No European country even cracks the top 10.
Boston’s urban ring cities have seen the most marked changes. Just two decades ago, Chelsea and its neighbors — Everett, Malden, Revere and Lynn — were all majority white. Now, they’re among the region’s most diverse communities, Schuster’s study found.
Chelsea is now more than 60% Latino. More than one-third of residents hail from Central America, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
The city had a growing Latino community of mostly Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans when her family arrived from Puerto Rico in the 1960s, recalls Gladys Vega, the longtime head of the Chelsea Collaborative, a community advocacy group. That started to change as the first wave of Central Americans came as refugees from civil wars in the 1980s and eventually became U.S. citizens.
The devastation of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 brought another wave of Central Americans, many of whom were granted temporary protected status, a special authorization that President Trump’s administration is trying to phase out.
The successive waves of Latino immigration helped the city pull back from near collapse, Vega said.
After decades of financial mismanagement and corruption, Chelsea faced insolvency in the 1990s. Businesses along Broadway were boarded up. The school system was so bad it was turned over to Boston University, an unprecedented arrangement that lasted for two decades until 2008.
“Latino immigrants helped rebuild Chelsea when people didn’t believe in Chelsea,” Vega said. “They invested in little storefronts that have grown and become established. They bought homes and they took pride in them. The contributions of the community are all around.”
The transition hasn’t been without challenges.
Many of the new high school-age students from Central America are coming from rural areas where they might not have attended school beyond the fourth grade, meaning the district needs more teachers, tutors and social workers, said Supt. Mary Bourque. The district of roughly 6,300 students is 86% Latino, with about 40% considered English language learners.
“We’ve absolutely struggled,” Bourque said. “But if we were appropriately funded in the state budget, addressing their needs would be far easier.”
Local nonprofits and police, meanwhile, have taken new approaches to adjust to the changed community.
Roca, an organization that helps young adults with criminal records get jobs, launched an initiative three years ago focused on making sure Central American youths stay in school and away from gangs. Two years ago, Chelsea police were involved in a major takedown of some 60 MS-13 members by federal and local authorities that helped stem a rash of violence that included nine homicides.
Last summer, Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes joined Boston’s police commissioner and others on a trip to El Salvador to build ties with Salvadoran law enforcement and understand how the gang communicates and recruits for its U.S. affiliates.
At the same time, Kyes stresses that his officers — nearly 40% of whom are fluent in Spanish — respect Chelsea’s long-standing “sanctuary city” policy, which prohibits the department from getting involved in immigration enforcement actions that don’t concern public safety.
“We’re one big community, regardless of where we or our parents came from,” he said.
Back on Broadway, Mateo, the new owner at Catracho’s, hopes that as Chelsea undergoes a building boom, Latino businesses and residents aren’t pushed out.
About half a mile away, near her old high school, is a cluster of new luxury apartment complexes, hotels and other hallmarks of a rapidly developing region. The city’s only Starbucks, a popular brewery and a gleaming new FBI office tower are nearby, and just across the city line in Everett is a new $2.6-billion hotel and casino complex.
“For a long time, Latin American people were the only ones investing in Chelsea,” Mateo said. “Will they still be here in five or 10 years? Can they afford it?
“I believe our community can keep up with the change and be a part of it, if it’s done well.”
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