- Associated Press - Sunday, April 10, 2011

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 Mr. 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 past 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 are Hispanic; only 700 lived there in 2000. Among them are Mr. 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.

Miss 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 farther 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.