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Emanuel looks like pro-Latino mayor

Updated: June 22, 2011 6:39PM

At his inauguration ceremony, Mayor Rahm Emanuel emphasized Chicago’s diversity and his own immigrant background. But beyond that, the newly minted mayor has taken real first steps to make sure his government reflects that diversity, particularly Chicago’s growing Latino community.

Emanuel has appointed several experienced Latino professionals as members of his leadership team to take on the enormous challenges the city confronts in finance, education and social services.

During his campaign for mayor, Emanuel announced the creation of the Office of New Americans to provide information to immigrants, allowing them to more effectively take advantage of city resources and services.

Emanuel has voiced strong support for the federal Dream Act, which would give immigrant students — those whose parents brought them to the U.S. when they were kids — the opportunity to become legal residents if they go to college or serve two years in the military. Emanuel also is behind the Illinois Dream Act, which would help undocumented students pay for college.

And the new mayor wants Chicago to remain a “sanctuary city,” meaning city employees are not permitted to ask the people with whom they do business about their immigration status.

Not bad for a guy who was blasted during the campaign for allegedly derailing immigration reform while in the White House.

Essentially, Emanuel is signaling to Latinos and other immigrants that they are welcome in Chicago — before even more of them decide that the beautiful flowers on Michigan Avenue are not enough reason to stick around.

Chicago’s Latino population has increased 3.3 percent in the last 10 years, even as the city’s overall population has declined. The Latino community now is about 40 percent of Chicago’s population.

Many Latinos, however, continue to head for the suburbs. Even Little Village, Logan Square and Pilsen — traditional Latino neighborhoods and immigrant enclaves — have lost thousands of residents.

Like so many others, Latinos have been moving to the suburbs for jobs, better schools and safer neighborhoods. And those concerns, not coincidentally, are precisely the priorities Emanuel underlined in his inaugural speech.

Chicago struggles with an abysmal budget deficit, low high school graduation rates — particularly among Latino and African-American students — violent neighborhoods and deteriorating infrastructure.

Emanuel and his team have their work cut out to persuade many residents that Chicago is still a great place to live and raise kids.

Evelyn Diaz, the newly appointed commissioner of the Department of Family and Support Services, seems resolute about confronting the challenges ahead.

“People are struggling. They need support,” Diaz told me. “At the same time, federal and state funding has been cut, so we have less money, but we need to keep responding.”

Among the biggest problems facing the Emanuel’s administration is an education system that graduates only half of its high school students. But Jesse Ruiz, the new vice president of the Chicago School Board of Education, says he hopes a longer school day and academic year, as well as more parental involvement, will improve those graduation rates.

Diaz and Ruiz say they’re proud and excited to serve the city at a time of such challenges.

And, they say, they know perfectly well that they — and Emanuel — will have to prove themselves.

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