What to know about Chicago’s migrant crisis

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More than 19,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago since the first two buses sent by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott arrived at Union Station on Aug. 31, 2022. What began as a political stunt by Abbott to draw attention to strained resources in border cities handling surging numbers of migrants has ballooned into a full-blown crisis. Southern border governments and charities are sending migrants on bus and train to Chicago and other immigration-friendly U.S. interior cities that have no clear plan to care for them.

Though Chicago has created more than two dozen temporary shelters across the city to house migrants in abandoned buildings, there are still thousands sleeping on the floors of police stations or outside of them — and hundreds at O’Hare International Airport. The migrants, most from Venezuela, often don’t have family or connections here, and many come with little or nothing. City and state offices offering social services are overwhelmed.

Experts say there are no parallels to Abbott’s busing program in recent years. According to an Oct. 9, 2023, report from Abbott’s office, he’s sent over 13,500 migrants to Chicago on charter buses since August 2022 as part of his 2021 border security initiative Operation Lone Star.

And while the busing has cost Abbott millions of dollars, it’s changing the national conversation about immigration, as governments that have never had to grapple with the strain of mass migration are now forced to face migrants congregating in public parks, begging at grocery store entrances and loitering on street corners. The result is a more universal plea for organization and aid at a federal level — from interior and border cities alike.

Minal Giri, chair of the Immigrant Child Health Initiative at the Illinois Chapter at the American Academy of Pediatrics, said people are fleeing harm and trudging through jungles, which will have long-lasting implications on their mental and physical health. Many migrants coming to Chicago are families with children.

“The kids are the ones who suffer the most because they can’t advocate for themselves,” she said. “They’re playing in the streets, living in the streets.”

What does it mean to be a welcoming city?

Chicago is a sanctuary city, which means city employees can avoid enforcing federal immigration laws.

The city’s sanctuary status began under its first Black mayor, Harold Washington, whose “Don’t Ask” policy in 1985 banned city officials from inquiring about citizenship. Mayors have since expanded protections, and state laws have also been enacted to protect immigrants. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has repeatedly said he wants Illinois to be “the most welcoming state” in the country.

Abbott began sending migrants north as a criticism to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies, arguing that liberal Northern cities that profess to be sanctuaries should welcome them.

“Texas communities ... should not have to shoulder the unprecedented surge of illegal immigration caused by President Biden’s reckless open border policies. I have directed the Texas Division of Emergency Management to deploy additional buses to send these migrants to self-declared sanctuary cities and provide much-needed relief to our overrun border towns,” Abbott said at the time. “Until President Biden upholds his constitutional duty to secure America’s southern border, Texas will continue to deploy as many buses as needed to relieve the strain caused by the surge of illegal crossings.”

Abbott also sent migrants to Denver and New York, which have dealt with their population differently. New York has limited the amount of time migrant families with children can stay in city shelters, and Denver has bought one-way Greyhound and Amtrak tickets for migrants to get to their final destinations, including Chicago.

Why are migrants coming to the U.S.?

In recent years, record numbers of people are trekking from South America to the United States — across a dangerous jungle known as the Darién Gap.

Soledad Álvarez Velasco, a social anthropologist and human geographer at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the number of people traversing to the U.S. continues to grow, due mainly to unprecedented levels of unemployment following the pandemic, crime and climate change.

“It’s a new situation in terms of migration. It’s not a war, but it’s a forced displacement,” she said.

Laura Cruz-Acosta, strategic communications director for the city of El Paso, Texas, one of the largest border cities in the nation, said El Paso experienced two surges of Venezuelan migrants at the beginning of this year and last. What distinguishes Venezuelan migrants from other refugees, she said, is their lack of resources and often their absence of familial ties in the United States.

Though migrants come from other Central and South American countries, most migrants arriving in Chicago are from Venezuela — a country that used to have a vibrant economy, according to Michelle Ellner, Latin America campaign coordinator of the nonprofit CODEPINK.

“Venezuelans are not used to migrating. They’re used to, on the contrary, receiving people,” she said.

Experts point to Venezuela’s plunging oil prices and the leadership of far-left President Nicolás Maduro as reasons for the mass migration of 7.3 million people, the second-largest internal displacement crisis in the world. After Maduro took office in 2013 and Venezuela’s economy declined sharply shortly thereafter, citizens became more reliant on welfare assistance from the government like monthly food handouts.

Migrants who have arrived in Chicago say they couldn’t make more than $25 a week in their country of origin. Many Venezuelans have fled to surrounding countries, but thousands make their way to the United States, seeking economic opportunities.

Maduro’s social programs — funded in the past by oil revenues — have been cut by unilateral sanctions by the United States over nearly two decades, according to a report by United Nations Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan. The U.S. imposed harsh sanctions on Venezuela following Maduro’s 2018 reelection, which many Western governments didn’t regard as legitimate.

The United States in October 2023 agreed to ease some sanctions on Venezuela, which some hope will stabilize the country and the economy. But the series of harsh sanctions have led to a devastating effect on social programs serving the entire population, said Adrienne Pine, an anthropologist and professor at California Institute of Integral Studies.

“If you look at the statistics themselves, it becomes abundantly clear that Venezuela only starts to be a net out-migration country in the year following the implementation of the sanctions,” Pine said.

Why are migrants coming to Chicago?

Migrants are people who have left their countries of origin by choice in search of a better opportunity, while immigrants are people who leave a country with the intention of taking up permanent residence. Most migrants arriving in Chicago are asylum-seekers, or people in search of protection due to dangers in their home country.

The U.S. government currently allows up to 30,000 qualifying individuals per month — from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela — to come to the United States for a period of two years.

Some migrants arrive illegally, crossing between border entry points. Migrants who arrive legally — by scheduling an appointment through an official mobile application used by Customs and Border Protection to inspect and document arrivals and departures in the United States — enter shelter systems in border cities. They often have little knowledge about where they are or where they should go.

Those who can will connect with family in the United States, but many decide to relocate to cities in the U.S. because of social media or by word-of-mouth from people who have already arrived. Government-funded shelters, faith-based groups or nonprofit organizations in border cities will often help them arrange and plan transportation to their destinations.

Many arriving in Chicago say they came because they heard it was easier to work here and people were receiving benefits and shelter space.

Migrants aren’t just coming to Chicago on chartered buses. They’re also being sent on sponsored tickets from Denver and planes by Catholic Charities in San Antonio, while some arrive to the city after pooling their own resources, hearing Chicago is friendlier than other cities.

What happened in the early days of the crisis?

In late August 2022, after learning that the first bus was about to arrive, then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot promised to find shelter for and take care of incoming migrants. But no one could have predicted just how much migrants would strain Chicago’s infrastructure and resources.

At various times over the first year, the crisis led to conflict between the city and state about lack of funding. There have been repeated calls for more federal resources.

In the first days of busing, facing steadily increasing numbers of migrants, Chicago had trouble finding workers to staff city-run shelters, especially for overnight shifts. Lightfoot immediately piggybacked off a contract the state signed during the COVID-19 pandemic with an out-of-state company called Favorite Staffing.

And as numbers of migrants climbed, the city opened more shelters — some in historically disinvested neighborhoods, raising pushback from residents. Though the number of migrants arriving in Chicago slowed through the winter, in January 2023 the first migrants began to sleep on the floors at police stations as city shelters had run out of space.

What is Mayor Brandon Johnson doing?

Mayor Brandon Johnson was sworn into office in May 2023 and inherited a quickly thrown-together shelter system about to experience another surge. The city was facing another large increase in migrants, many staying in police stations waiting for shelter placement.

Though migrants have come in waves over the first year, numbers of migrants have increased substantially in Chicago throughout 2023 — with Gov. Abbott threatening to send 20 to 25 buses a day in October 2023 and new shelters popping up around the city almost weekly.

Johnson’s administration immediately extended the city’s contract with the vendor Favorite Staffing.

A recent Tribune investigation into the company revealed its high price and overworked staff, and the current administration said it hoped to move away from the expensive contract and hire locally. But on Oct. 23, 2023, Johnson’s administration renewed the controversial contract and signed a $40 million extension through October 2024.

The city estimates that costs associated with migrants since August 2022 could reach above $360 million by the end of 2023.

Meanwhile, mutual aid networks have stepped in to help feed, clothe and provide resources to migrants staying at police stations.

Faith-based groups are also pooling their resources. But no volunteers are currently allowed inside city-run shelters, and questions remain about what will happen as winter approaches and thousands of migrants with no place to go are now sleeping outside.

Johnson’s 2024 budget includes only $150 million in funding for migrants, less than half of what likely will have been spent on migrant assistance over the past year. And with colder months ahead, the mayor is moving forward with plans to put up winterized base camps across the city under a nearly $30 million contract with GardaWorld Federal Services and its subsidiary Aegis Defense Services.

The city hasn’t provided concrete details on those plans.

What is temporary protected status, and why is it important?

Almost all migrants who have come to Chicago over the past year have one goal — to work. But many aren’t legally able to.

So they scrounge for what they can find, trusting strangers who pick them up from police stations and shelters to bring them to construction sites where they spend their days painting or roofing.

In late September 2023, in response to pressure from officials in Chicago and elsewhere, the Biden administration allowed nearly 500,000 Venezuelans to be able to apply for temporary work permits, which in theory will help migrants be self-sufficient and move out of shelters.

And while many immigration advocates cheered the decision, those working with migrants on the ground pointed out some serious obstacles.

Yanira Arias, national campaigns manager for Alianza Americas, a Chicago-based transnational organization rooted in Latino immigrant communities in the United States, said temporary protected status applications, which migrants must fill out to apply for the work permits, are long and expensive. Temporary status allows migrants with unsafe conditions in their countries of origin to reside and work legally in the United States.

But just one application asks for pages of documentation. In addition to filling out the temporary protected status application, a work authorization application for an adult costs more than $400. Migrants need to visit a local immigration field office to provide biometrics, which costs another $85.

Migrants who can’t afford the application can request a fee waiver, and some organizations have initiatives that help provide funding for migrants who demonstrate they can’t pay the hefty fees.

“The next step for community-based organization is to figure out how to make sure everyone can access a work permit. This is the hope of many Venezuelans in Chicago. They want to work. They want to have a permit to work,” Arias said.

Where does Chicago stand now?

In early October, President Biden announced he would resume deportation flights to Venezuela. The federal government had not been deporting people to Venezuela because of severed ties with the South American country’s government.

The first deportation flight from Texas to Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela, happened about two weeks later. The flights will prioritize criminals or people who just came across the border illegally. They will also be for Venezuelans who lost their asylum bids and were given final removal orders.

State and local officials say it is too early to tell how the deportation flights will affect the migrant population in Chicago and Illinois.

El Paso Communications Director Laura Cruz-Acosta said she has seen a decline in migrants crossing at the border since that federal policy was passed. But there are still thousands of migrants just on the other side of the border waiting to cross, said Beatriz Ponce de Leon, Chicago’s deputy mayor of immigrant, migrant and refugee rights, on a phone call with the Tribune from a trip to El Paso with a delegation from Mayor Johnson’s team.

“It’s a very temporary law. We don’t know when numbers will start growing again,” she said.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, social services are buckling under increasing numbers of migrants.

Hundreds of migrants from Venezuela line up outside the Illinois Department of Human Services office in Sauganash most weekdays, hoping to be seen by the program serving foreign-born victims of trafficking, torture, or other serious crimes, known as the VTTC. The program provides migrants access to food, cash and medical benefits, but state officials have told the Tribune it wasn’t meant for this many people.

The Resurrection Project, a nonprofit organization in Pilsen that helps defend immigrant rights, has the same staff they did before numbers of migrants increased.

“There’s now a lot of people who are interested in applying for or need to apply for immigration benefits, on top of all of the other people who already live here who need legal assistance,” said Katherine Greenslade, director of the immigrant justice legal clinic at The Resurrection Project.

Greenslade said the immigration process is especially difficult for migrants who live in temporary shelters and don’t have a permanent address to receive follow-up documents.

Keith South, immigration attorney and founder of Southam Law LLC, said the asylum process can take years. It is so confusing and bureaucratic that some migrants avoid applying for asylum altogether.

“And so one thing I’m seeing with a lot of these Venezuelan migrants is they’re not touching the whole process at all,” Southam said. “And there’s so many of them that there’s no way to enforce it.”

The city has pointed to resettlement as their long-term solution to addressing the crisis, with a government assistance program covering up to six months of housing costs for migrants staying in city-run shelters. But Chicago has resettled just over 5,500 migrants since December, and more than three times that amount have arrived since last year.

How can Chicagoans help?

Karina Ayala-Bermejo, president and CEO of Instituto del Progreso Latino, said the nonprofit is asking Chicagoans for drop-off donations of new or unused clothes and essential items in front of their building, 2520 S. Western Ave. She suggested residents can also donate to the organization’s Rapid Response Wish List on Amazon or on its website.

New Life Centers, which helps families move into their new apartments with money from the state, is accepting gently used furniture to the Chicago Furniture Bank. Furniture can be dropped off at the bank, 4801 S. Whipple St., or arrangements can be made for furniture to be picked up.

Cradles to Crayons Chicago is also partnering with New Life Centers to provide clothing and essential items to new arrivals. There are multiple drop-off locations around the city.

One Warm Coat is leading drives to collect gently worn coats and outerwear — hats, earmuffs, gloves, mittens, scarfs — to migrant sleeping outside in the winter. President and CEO of One Warm Coat Beth Amodio encourages people to register to hold their own coat drive at their workplace, place of worship, neighborhood school and more, or provide a monetary donation.

To support the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s efforts to provide meals at shelters, people can also donate to their food bank.

There are a number of mutual aid organizations listed on the city’s website, for those who want to be more directly involved in volunteer efforts. Ayala-Bermejo said there is an especially high need for people who can provide health care support.

“All of us need to be ready to go to maximize our coordination. All of us can figure out a way to be a part of the solution to this,” she said.