Asylum-seekers cleared from once-crowded Chicago police station as city begins to enact new policies

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration cleared all asylum-seekers from the one of the city’s most crowded police stations over the weekend, a significant move that symbolizes his ongoing pivot on how to handle the humanitarian crisis as winter approaches.

The 18th District station at Division and Larrabee streets was “decompressed” Saturday as part of the city’s efforts to move the migrant population from police stations to brick-and-mortar shelters, Johnson’s spokesman Ronnie Reese said Monday.

The action comes less than a week after the mayor rolled out a series of new protocols, including a 60-day shelter limit policy aimed at getting migrants to move to more permanent housing and plans to crack down on “rogue” buses that drop off asylum-seekers without the city knowing ahead of time.

While some advocates for migrants applauded the effort to shift asylum-seekers out of the police stations, they also raised serious reservations the moves were setting up migrants to find themselves back out on the streets in mid-January due to the 60-day shelter policy.

As more migrants continue to arrive in Chicago, while at a slower pace than in previous months, the administration also said it is beginning to augment plans to redirect incoming migrants who wish to go elsewhere, though it was unclear whether those efforts entail subsidized tickets out of the city.

The emptying out of migrants from the Near North police district station comes as several other stations across the city have seen their migrant population decrease significantly, city officials and volunteers at the stations told the Tribune.

The recent maneuvers paint a picture of the Johnson administration’s evolving response to the thousands of asylum-seekers whose fates have presented some of the mayor’s biggest challenges. Though his office maintains that its goal is to resettle new arrivals, the recent updates and new policies signal Johnson is walking a thin line of both trying to reiterate Chicago’s values as being a welcoming city while prioritizing current residents.

“The city continues to identify viable sites — base camps and brick and mortar shelter — as an alternative to new arrivals sleeping outdoors and on the floors of O’Hare Airport and police stations as winter fast approaches,” Johnson’s emergency communications spokeswoman Mary May wrote in a statement. “The goal is to decompress all police districts and airports and provide adequate shelter for new arrivals.”

During the summer, the police stations, as well as O’Hare International Airport, became the go-to locations for many migrants arriving from the southern border, most notably Venezuela. The stations got so crowded that many chose to set up tents outside. But the city has moved to slow those temporary encampments as temperatures have dropped in the past six weeks.

Still, as of Monday afternoon, about 1,600 individuals remained camped out among another 20 police districts, while belongings inside the Near North station and the cluster of tents that had dotted the sidewalks outside were gone. Whether the results at the 18th District will last hinges on whether the city can keep up with the ongoing — albeit slower — volume of buses from U.S. southern states, among other factors.

So far this week at least three new buses have arrived in Chicago, and some of the passengers are still being funneled to police stations or airports. That is because Johnson’s promise of erecting winterized base camps to hold asylum-seekers before they are moved to shelters has yet to be fulfilled.

Meanwhile, the 60-day policy that began last Friday will not see its first results until mid-January and, even then, the initial impact will be meager as only new arrivals to the shelter system on Friday plus about 50 residents who have been there since 2022 received a first wave of notices from city officials.

One of the volunteer leaders at the 18th District station, Amanda Betts, said she was happy to see the city move migrants staying there to shelters on Saturday.

“I’m so thrilled that they are out of the stations, and at least they aren’t sitting on the sidewalk, in tents, with rain pouring down and snow,” she said.

Betts, who has been volunteering at the station for seven months, said the stations were untenable. Migrants weren’t allowed to use inside bathrooms during the day. Chicago police turned off outside electricity, so people couldn’t charge their phones to find job opportunities and apartments — or to call their relatives. And the weather was getting worse by the day.

While she lauded the city’s decision to move people out of the cold, the new announcement of removing migrants from city-run shelters after 60 days has dampened her relief.

“It’s as though they’re just putting Scotch tape on gaping wounds,” Betts said.

At another police district on the West Side, some longtime migrant response volunteers took their sharpest stand yet against the Johnson administration.

Mutual aid volunteers at the 10th District station at 3315 W. Ogden Ave. released a statement via member Lydia Wong that said they will no longer coordinate their efforts with the city due to the 60-day shelter limit policy.

“Every person entering the shelter is being placed in a system that is designed to fail, and will burden the city of Chicago with increased homelessness and with a public health crisis,” Wong said in a statement to the Tribune. “To this end, we can no longer in good conscience facilitate the moving of migrants from stations to shelters … (or) support the city’s work related to move migrants from airports and police stations to city-run shelters, only to inevitably turn them into the streets again.”

As city officials focus on police stations, they also are turning attention to incoming asylum-seekers by trying to identify and punish so-called rogue buses whose operators, city officials say, are not coordinating with them and dropping off migrants in scattered areas throughout the city.

Utilizing a new provision quietly included as part of Johnson’s 2024 budget that sailed through the City Council last Wednesday, Johnson and his team plan to fine intercity buses that don’t obtain approval via an application with the Chicago Department of Transportation before unloading at designated bus stands, zones or other locations. Unscheduled buses from out of town must pick up or drop off at designated sites: currently only the west side curb of South Desplaines Street south of West Polk Street, and only between 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Companies that break the new ordinance will be subject to fines between $2,000 to $10,000, one per each unauthorized unloading, the city said.

That designated site at 800 S. Desplaines St. will continue to be used as a “landing zone” for incoming migrants arriving by bus before they are temporarily moved into Chicago police stations and airports, but Reese said the goal is to bypass those destinations altogether once more shelter beds open up or the winterized base camps debut.

In addition to the 1,600 remaining at police stations as of Monday, another 570 individuals were sleeping inside O’Hare. But the combined number of migrants awaiting shelter beds has dropped sharply from a peak of about 3,800 earlier this fall.

Johnson’s team said it will increase staff at the Desplaines Street site, which is the Maxwell Street Market, to try to trim the population entering the shelters. The city intends to guide new arrivals with family or connections elsewhere out of the city.

Johnson administration officials would not say whether that change comes with free bus, train or plane tickets, as has been the case in other cities struggling to keep up with new arrivals. May, Johnson’s emergency office spokeswoman, said Catholic Charities “in partnership with the state provides onward movement” without elaborating.

The mayor’s office added that the state of Illinois may also step in at the Desplaines site, though questions remain on what that cooperation would look like.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker last week announced an additional $160 million infusion to help the city address the crisis, $65 million of which is expected to be used to set up another tent encampment for migrants that, while funded by the state, would be operated by the city. The remaining $95 million would go toward a new centralized intake center for new arrivals and other assistance.

As of Monday, city and state officials did not have details on where either the state-funded tent encampment or welcoming center would go.

Chicago Tribune’s Laura Rodriguez contributed.