I grew up near 117th and Halsted. On the corner, near my grandmother’s house (which felt colossal to me as a kid), sat a Chase Bank, a Maxwell’s, and a KA Pridjian, which sells and repairs carpets. Two blocks from there, at 115th and Halsted, was a Jewel-Osco.
I remember when “Jewels”, as it was referred to by all the Black folks in the community, was filled with people on Friday evenings before long weekends. I remember when it closed in 2008.
Fifteen years later, on November 7, after a reasonably contentious political battle over acquiring the 67,000-square-foot vacant grocery store and its surrounding 6.5 acres, the City Council approved a plan to turn the former Jewel parking lot into a migrant shelter, as long as plans continued for a future mixed-use development with affordable housing called Morgan Park Commons.
A month later, however, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration scrapped the planned camp on 115th and Halsted. Johnson and Alderperson Ronnie Mosley (21st Ward) put out a joint statement. “There are no immediate plans for 115th and Halsted, but in the event that we move forward together in addressing this humanitarian crisis with a base camp at the site, we remain committed to our collaboration and shared plans for capital improvements, community development and support for housing, health and safety for residents of the 21st Ward,” the statement read. “With dedicated efforts and an open line of communication, the 21st Ward will be better through and beyond our city’s new arrivals mission.”
At the time, Gov. J.B. Pritzer had just demanded a halt to building a migrant camp in Brighton Park due to the lingering presence of toxic waste on the land: a railyard once used to house tanks and oil houses, a zinc smelter, and a truck trailer.
For many who have been following Chicago politics over the past several months, public discourse about the arrival of Venezuelan asylum seekers and the demands to use local resources to support Black communities that have been in crisis for generations may not be new. In fact, the debate has contributed to polarization among communities and elected officials.
Fleeing economic and political turmoil and reportedly a twenty-year legacy of kleptocracy in Venezuela, over a quarter of a million Venezuelans crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 2023. With such a large number of asylum-seekers arriving in Chicago every day, about 35,000 have arrived since August 2022.
At one time, Venezuela was among the wealthiest countries in Latin America. Its successful economy and petrostate sailed on the profits of the largest proven oil reserves in the world. But in the 2010s, the country’s economy crashed in the face of plunging oil prices and the restriction of civil liberties, such as the persecution of political opponents, unregulated abuses of power, human rights violations of LGBTQIA+ rights and women’s rights and tough sanctions imposed by the U.S.
Those U.S. sanctions restricted the state-run oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, which limited its oil sales in 2019 and cut off exports to the U.S., their biggest consumer.
Fifteen years of sanctions by the U.S. led to $5.5 billion in Venezuelan funds in accounts internationally being frozen. In 2006, then-President George W. Bush banned all U.S. commercial arms sales in response to the Venezuelan government’s refusal to cooperate in U.S. counterterrorism and anti-narcotics initiatives. In 2014, following reports of abuse by Venezuelan police forces, President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on individuals involved in human rights violations. The next year, Obama declared Venezuela a threat to national security and administered sanctions on high-ranking officials.
In 2017, then-President Donald Trump cut off Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s access to the U.S. financial system; prohibited U.S. companies and U.S. citizens from purchasing Venezuelan debt; and blocked PDVSA from exporting to the United States, its main destination.
According to the Center for Economic Policy and Research, sanctions between 2017 and 2019 created massive shortages in food and medical supplies and affected more than 300,000 Venzeulans’ access to healthcare.
Richard Hanus, an immigration lawyer for three decades, shared his thoughts on the driving motivations for migrants coming to the U.S. “There are legitimate asylum seekers who seek refuge in America due to a protected category,” he said. “There are folks who are seeking to leave their home country because of bad economic conditions. People don’t just leave places where they are comfortable…their familiar surroundings, their culture, their existence. They leave because they’re finding a way to survive.”
A number of Chicagoans might think that asylum seekers are being sent to the city by the federal government. But in reality, since April 2022, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has sent buses of migrants to Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, and Los Angeles. As of December 2023, Texas has bussed more than 80,000 people from border cities to Democratic cities, according to Abbott’s own office
As subzero temperatures descended on Chicago in January, more than 500 Venezuelans, including about 100 children, were sleeping in CTA warming buses in the South Loop, near the city’s designated “landing zone” for new arrivals. Nearly 14,000 were staying in shelters across the city at press time, according to city data.
When rumblings of the former Jewel-Osco parking lot on 115th and Halsted being converted into a migrant camp began, a number of local residents were frustrated and angered by the news. Mosley initially opposed the plan to build a migrant camp in his district. He later agreed to the use of the former Jewel-Osco parking lot for the camp after he reached a compromise with Johnson wherein the site could not be used as a tent camp past November 1.
In 2021, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) released a report about the state of health for Black communities in Chicago. The report found an average life expectancy gap of 9.2 years between Black Chicagoans and other residents (71.4 years for Black Chicagoans compared to 80.6 years for people from non-Black communities). The report also noted that many of the neighborhoods in Chicago with populations that are at least 80 percent Black had high levels of economic hardship, lower income, and higher housing costs.
The former Jewel-Osco at 115th and Halsted sits on the border between Roseland and West Pullman, two communities the report highlighted as predominantly Black with high percentages of economic turmoil.
Valencia Bey, a native of the West Side who spent a considerable amount of her life on the South Side and who volunteers to provide aid to asylum-seekers, shared her thoughts on local residents’ responses to the news of the migrant camp plans when they were first released. “Why are you going to bring these migrants in knowing that people still don’t have everything that they need? And so now you got to bring in a whole slew of [people], of just hundreds of people, to a camp, and you still don’t have basic resources? What is that going to do to the community?”
Bey, who began volunteering at shelters around the city in her early twenties, shared some additional nuance about the volunteer work she does to aid Venezuelans in Oak Park. There, she joins other residents to distribute coats, food, clothes and other items while trying to find housing for migrants. “It’s just heartbreaking because we already didn’t have enough resources for the people who are here,” she said. “Right now, we have so many more coming and we don’t have resources for them, either, and it’s getting cold. I think it’s just inhumane for them to be sent to such a cold place.”
Speaking to the idea that residents might not welcome a migrant camp due to concerns about crime or jobs, Hanus, the immigration attorney, had this to say: “A lot of this perception comes from online triggering and people’s preconceived notions; someone who looks to manipulate the audience can devise a grievance-based approach to appeal to someone’s underlying anger or bias. It’s a very sophisticated thought process that goes into these campaigns.”
Cedric Johnson, a professor of political science and African American studies at UIC, said concerns also come from a “pattern of underdevelopment” in marginalized communities. “You can drive through Chicago, through any city, and there are concentrations of wealth in certain neighborhoods with lots of investment,” he said. “Then there’s underdevelopment and food deserts and all of the phrases that we use to talk about majority-Black neighborhoods in different parts of the country.
He added that he doesn’t think it’s strictly due to racism. “I think that’s the shorthand that we use sometimes to describe what’s happened because that’s visibly what it looks like,” he said. “But underneath it, there’s a lot of other forces at play. The political will is not there. I support the mayor, but where the hell was the leadership?”
Johnson added that when Trump was president, his xenophobic rhetoric contributed to family members in Louisiana latching on to some of the former president’s comments. “Even though they didn’t support Trump, they were repeating that idea that somehow there was this quarter of undeserving migrants who will come in to take jobs and take up space,” he said.
“It’s sad when I hear Black people embrace that sort of anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric, because you would think, because of our own history as migrants and as low-wage workers and people who were exploited and people enslaved, that we might have some sympathy. But you know, that’s just not the way things work.”
A closed CVS parking lot is currently being used as a state-funded migrant shelter for families with children and people with disabilities. The site opened in January and will house an estimated 230 migrants. Both Johnson and Pritzker have repeatedly requested federal funding to support growing populations of asylum-seekers in the city.
In January, CBS 2 reported that between December 2022 and January 2024 the city spent $156.2 million supporting asylum seekers. The Sun-Times reported in December that $95 million of that was reallocated from unspent COVID-19 relief funds in 2023.
“I think the opposition to the asylum seekers is coming from some mix of tragedy and… a place of vulnerability that an influx of low-wage people, desperate folks, undocumented or noncitizen people can create havoc in [an already desperate] job market, that can actually create a race to the bottom,” professor Johnson said.
The total amount spent on asylum-seekers represents city money and money from the state and federal government. According to the Civic Federation, an independent, non-partisan research organization that analyzes government spending, the city’s 2024 $16.6 billion budget only includes half the projected amount necessary to care for asylum seekers. The analysis projected the city will experience a budget deficit of over half of a billion dollars in 2024, due to a combination of factors such as pension contributions, debt service payments, and the end of federal funding tied to the American Rescue Plan Act.
During two budget briefings held last year, Mayor Johnson acknowledged social divestment from Black communities. He vowed to increase the city’s investment in remedying housing insecurity, prioritizing the climate crisis and mental health, and establishing $4.7 million to help meet the needs of formerly incarcerated residents.
The 2024 budget allocates $150 million for migrant support services, $200 million in affordable housing initiatives, and $250 million in homelessness support services.
One thing is clear: although the migrant camps have been halted for now, the challenges of housing and providing resources to Chicago’s most marginalized communities across lines of citizenship, race, and class are not going away.
When asked what we do with that complexity, that reality, that pain of decades of unfairness being experienced by two different communities in crisis, Bey said, “I think we just have to balance practicality with compassion.”