Lewis W. Hine, Tenement Child, Handicapped in Every Way, 1910, from the series “Hull House & Chicago” Credit: Richard A Chapman/Sun-Times Media

Mystery—never being able to completely comprehend that which has captured your heart—is an important component of falling in love. Chicago’s immigrant past and present may well be why no one can quite figure this city out.

For much of the 19th century, the percentage of Chicago’s population born outside the United States was higher than even New York City’s. By 1890, nearly four out of every five Chicagoans were either immigrants or children of immigrants. “There is a swarming interaction of all the peoples of the human race on every street,” the German sociologist Max Weber marveled after visiting the city in 1904.

To be sure, the city could be a brutal place for these newcomers. “Near the Steel Mills there is the sound of gigantic processes suggesting peril to life and limb, and mysterious accidents of which the public never learns,” noted one study on the appalling conditions of immigrant housing. “Here a pall of heavy smoke darkens the sky by day, while by night the lurid glare from the furnaces tells of unceasing toil.”

Chicago hasn’t always been a tolerant place either. During the First World War, German immigrants who weren’t naturalized citizens were required to register with the federal government, their names and addresses printed in Chicago newspapers. These “enemy aliens” could be sent to internment camps without trial. Railing against the city’s radicals, “third-sex agitators,” Lutherans, and “long-haired visionaries and work-haters from every race in the world,” Emerson Hough, a member of the American Protective League, a wartime volunteer auxiliary of the Department of Justice tasked with investigating suspected German sympathizers, complained that Chicago “has invited them, accepted them, and made them free of the place.”

But if you’ve ever been struck by a sense of wonderment in Chicago, there’s probably an immigrant story behind it, perhaps even one about how this stubborn city “invited them, accepted them, and made them free of the place.” That spot on the corner you’ve always admired? It’s a church that German Catholics poured their hearts into—motivated in part by a desire to show up the Lutherans and the Irish. That theater or restaurant or bar you frequent was more than likely built by someone born in a town you probably can’t pronounce, who had to work harder than you’ve ever had to just to compete against other immigrants from places you can’t pronounce. If you like that you have the weekend off to wander around Chicago, you can thank the Chicago immigrant labor organizers who worked tirelessly for the 40-hour workweek.

Our latter-day Emerson Houghs may think they can fix Chicago by redirecting our police to stop everyone who exhibits the telltale signs of being a foreigner who doesn’t belong. But Chicago would not be Chicago if it hadn’t been a refuge, a sanctuary for those fleeing from famine, war, hopeless poverty, degenerate monarchs, and vain authoritarians. The city of immigrants makes us proud and makes us humble, just as true love does.   v