After a media-frenzied welcome, thousands of asylum seekers from Latin America, particularly from Venezuela, have arrived in Chicago. Texas governor Greg Abbott has been sending migrants here and other welcoming cities, like Washington D.C. and New York City, to pressure President Joe Biden’s administration into enacting harsher border enforcement policies. As of publication, 3,667 asylum seekers have arrived in Chicago.
Abbott said he will continue to bus asylum seekers to these cities until the federal government “does its job and secures the border.” However, local officials have complained that they have not been properly notified of new arrivals and there is no line of communication with Texas politicians. As a result, Chicago and other Democrat cities have been scrambling to coordinate relief efforts without the federal funds that border states receive to accommodate asylum seekers.
In press conferences, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been outspoken about her support of migrants. The city has provided temporary housing at shelters and hotels, and connected migrants to support after their arrival at Greyhound’s Union Station. Upon arrival some of the migrants were sent to the Salvation Army in Humboldt Park. The City has also set up a web page where Chicagoans are encouraged to make donations via Amazon of items such as underwear, jogging pants, socks, sports bras, and other basic necessities.
Additionally, Juan Salgado, chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago (CCC), in an special announcement email to the CCC community in mid-October, announced CCC has provided “a portion of Truman College” on the city’s Northeast Side as a temporary shelter for new arrivals as well as a portion of the Arturo Velasquez Institute on the Southwest Side. In the email, Salgado said some CCC staff have volunteered to serve as translators and liaisons.
But employees at many nonprofits are feeling swamped and say sustainable, long-term services are strongly needed. Juan Carlos Hernández, the immigration program coordinator at the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Central America (CRLN), said legal support and housing are the most needed but hardest to get because it’s costly.
He said obtaining asylum isn’t just a matter of applying for it—nationally, around 60 percent of asylum cases are rejected. When their cases are rejected, “people…often end up disappearing…they end up living in the shadows as undocumented people making their lives here,” he said.
But CRLN doesn’t have the capacity to help with asylum cases, he said. They depend on partner organizations like the nonprofit Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), a project of pro-bono attorneys in Chicago, Indiana and beyond.
ManoLasya Perepa, a staff attorney with NIJC in Chicago, said she knows they’ve received some funding from the City but that more funding would be “great to get more staff and more people working on [cases].” Specifically, Perepa said there’s a shortage of attorneys and staff to support not only recent asylum seekers, but those that already live here.
22nd Ward Alderperson Michael Rodríguez, who represents parts of La Villita, a neighborhood that has been a port of entry for immigrant families for decades, said nonprofits are the ones taking the lead and they are not sufficiently supported with money from the City. Annually, La Villita contributes $900 million to Chicago’s economy. “We need to make sure we’re meeting all of our needs. This obviously increased those needs and that contingency money should be going to nonprofits.”
Rodriguez was referring to funds the mayor promised to set aside for newly arrived immigrants during her budget address in October, where she proposed a $16.4 billion budget for 2023 to City Council. “Given the recent increase in the need for resources available to support migrants coming to Chicago,” Lightfoot said, “We have $5 million set aside for that work and other contingencies.”
Rodriguez said he just hopes this money will go to nonprofits in immigrant communities. And while he said the City will be applying for federal money, and that those nonprofits will be included in those applications, he’ll be watching the $5 million in contingency funds “like a hawk.” He also thinks it’s in the city’s self-interest to help asylum seekers. “At the end of the day, we’ve been losing population in the city… it’s not like we’re growing at the same rate as other big cities. So we need more people…”
Immigrants and people of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. During its peak, they had a difficult time finding vaccines and accessing health information. That is why the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) thinks long term, comprehensive solutions are needed.
“Already existing inequities were compounded by the pandemic for immigrants and all communities of color,” said Brandon Lee, Director of Communications for ICIRR. “We’re advocating for comprehensive and sustainable long-term solutions that extend beyond thirty to sixty days. If the last couple of months have shown us anything, it’s that a high level of coordination between the city, state, and community organizations is sorely needed.”
Lee pointed to housing and education as the highest priority and said the reason why protections for immigrants are stronger and resources have grown over the years is because immigrant communities have demanded them in the first place. Immigrants have challenged racist laws, have urged politicians to fund services and put an end to family separations.
The mayor has also gotten pushback about coordinating efforts from 20th Ward Alderperson Jeanette Taylor, according to the Hyde Park Herald. In a meeting with the mayor, Taylor learned that the City was considering housing asylum seekers in a vacant Woodlawn school. Taylor said there wasn’t proper notice given to her for community input. The alderwoman said she looked “for alternatives that will make this transition more comfortable” for new arrivals. And while the mayor decided against the move, Taylor pointed to the irony of how the City has turned the other way about displaced residents in Woodlawn.
The Chicago Teachers Union is also urging the mayor to support immigrant students, stating the arrival of asylum seekers has “intensified the equity gap that students in CPS already confront.” The union adds that students and their families “lack bilingual education programs, native language resources, culturally relevant curriculum, and ESL/Bilingual endorsed staff.”
When the Weekly pressed for details about the City’s overall coordinated efforts and plans moving forward, the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services Public Affairs Director never got back for an interview.
“For the last couple of weeks, it’s been at the front page,” said Rodriguez. “And you know…I think people are going to start forgetting about this. And I’m really worried about that.”In September, Governor J.B Pritzker issued a disaster proclamation to accelerate the availability of state funds and resources to manage the situation. Additionally, the City Council’s Latino Caucus urged the mayor to declare a state of emergency on October 12—just a week after New York City’s mayor Eric Adams declared a state of emergency as more immigrants are expected to arrive.
Correction, November 4, 2022: This story was updated to reflect the number of new migrants and correct the last name of a source.
Alma Campos is the Weekly’s Immigration editor.