Migrants flown to Chicago by Catholic Charities in San Antonio, even with winter approaching and no place to sleep

When migrants arrive in Chicago’s airports on flights paid for by Catholic Charities in San Antonio, they often have little to no money, connections or plan for what to do next.

Catholic Charities in Chicago is not there to greet them because its counterpart in Texas does not coordinate with it. Few of the migrants have friends or family here to meet them.

While Catholic Charities in Chicago has stepped in to provide clothing and hundreds of hot meals to asylum-seekers and has been involved in the state’s resettlement program, it is now also paying the tab with Illinois taxpayer money to send migrants back to Texas and elsewhere.

As Chicago’s notoriously brutal winter looms, city officials and residents alike are alarmed by the relentless arrival of migrants sent here not only by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, but also through federally funded efforts from religious groups such as Catholic Charities in San Antonio.

The haphazard transferral of migrants not only calls into question the best use of taxpayer money and donations, but also fosters discussion about the moral obligations of faith-based groups.

William Schweiker, a professor of theological ethics at the University of Chicago, said the way the church and the state are working together to help move migrants to a city with subfreezing temperatures goes against the Christian responsibility to care for homeless people.

“In my judgment, to take people who have sought to escape poverty and to move them to some other city they do not know, is morally abhorrent,” he said. “Are we committed to the equal dignity of all human beings?”

Last month, migrants here — who are mostly from tropical Venezuela — had their first encounter with freezing temperatures during the season’s first snowfall, and the reality of what’s to come was too much for some to bear. Andrelys Leon, 28, who had been living at the 12th District police station in Little Italy with her 7-year-old son, packed up her things that day and walked the 1.3 miles to the Greyhound station to catch a bus back to San Antonio.

“At least it is not that cold over there,” she said in Spanish. “We can take it, but not the children.”

More than 20,700 migrants have come to Chicago since August 2022, mostly by buses and planes. When they arrive, they are funneled into the city’s maxed-out shelter system — a process run by the Office of Emergency Management — and wait for placement in one of 25 abandoned schools, warehouses and buildings around the city now housing migrants. The waiting list can be months long.

The city’s resources have been stretched to the brink with the chaotic and sudden arrival of thousands of people. Homeless shelters that never recovered from decreased COVID-19 bed availability are filled to capacity, and roughly 3,000 migrants now sleep on the floors of the city’s airports and police stations, or camp outside.

Arielis Torrealba, 22, said at first she was grateful that Catholic Charities in San Antonio paid for her airplane ticket to Chicago.

She sat on a bench at O’Hare International Airport at the end of October, holding her 4-year-old son, Elian, as he squirmed and watched cartoons on her phone.

But as the mother and son from Venezuela spent their 21st day of sleeping on the lobby floor of the bus/shuttle center — an area below the airport parking garage the city has converted into a temporary shelter for hundreds of migrants awaiting placement in city-run shelters — she was starting to second-guess their journey here.

She said she received great attention from case managers in San Antonio, but hasn’t been as impressed with what she’s received at the airport in Chicago, where she showers every few days and has to vie for space and food for herself and her 4-year-old.

She was glad to be in the United States so her child could go to school. But she hadn’t left the airport for days, she said, and didn’t know when she would.

Nearby, instead of sitting in classrooms, young children at O’Hare passed the time by spinning plastic water bottles and watching TV on their phones. Families lounged on soft blankets.

“We came here first for shelter. But there’s also great transportation. I don’t have a car, and there are a lot of metros and buses,” said Torrealba, holding her son on her lap and looking out the window at passengers walking by with rolling suitcases.

Thousands of migrants like them have arrived with the help of prepaid airplane tickets from faith-based groups in San Antonio, the majority paid for by Catholic Charities there.

Chief Development Officer of Catholic Charities San Antonio Tara Ford said the organization has arranged more than 4,000 flights to Chicago since the beginning of January. Of the more than 229,000 migrants it has received since September 2022, it has also sent thousands of people to Denver and New York.

Migrants who have been released by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol pass through San Antonio’s “Centro De Bienvenida” or migrant resource center, a hub co-operated by the city of San Antonio and Catholic Charities, and supported by other nonprofits in the area, said Roland Martinez, San Antonio’s public relations manager for its Department of Human Services.

Migrants stay in their care for 24 to 72 hours, enough time for them to shower, get hygiene items and decide where in the U.S. they would like to go, Ford said.

“From our point of view, we want to make sure any client coming into our care is receiving the most dignified care possible. For right now, it is flying them to their final destination at their request,” Ford said.

Ford declined to comment when asked whether sending migrants into freezing temperatures without a place to stay could be considered dignified care.

Catholic Charities of Chicago says it receives no notice from its counterpart when migrants arrive in Chicago. “Specifically, Catholic Charities of San Antonio has not chosen to share any information with us about arrivals,” Mary Krinock, chief of staff of Catholic Charities of Chicago, said in a written statement.

The Chicago branch of Catholic Charities does not coordinate activities with Catholic Charities of San Antonio, Krinock said. It is a separate legal entity that receives separate funding.

The Archdiocese of Chicago is working with city officials to assess the viability of turning six to eight of their properties into shelters housing 300 people or more, said Eric Wollan, chief capital assets officer. The organization does not currently operate any large shelters to house migrants, though it was involved in conversations 15 months ago with former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration.

“The combination of the continually increasing numbers coupled with the seasonal change continues to create a greater sense of urgency,” Wollan said. “We’re very hopeful that a couple of these locations at a minimum will prove to be fruitful and that they can get up and running relatively soon.”

As freezing temperatures descend on migrant tent encampments at police stations, smaller parishes are stepping in to respond. The Rev. Carl Morello, a pastor in Oak Park, said his parishioners provide showering facilities and hold clothing drives for migrants staying at the 15th District in Austin.

Migrants arrive at the Austin police station wearing nothing more than a flimsy T-shirt. On cold mornings, hundreds wait outside his church for warm water and jackets.

Morello was not aware that Catholic Charities in San Antonio was buying tickets for people to come to Chicago.

“The last place I would be sending people right now is Chicago with the winter coming. There’s not a good plan,” he said.

The city of Chicago noticed a pattern of migrants arriving from the hub city on airplanes in early June, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s deputy chief of staff, Cristina Pacione-Zayas, said at a briefing with reporters last month. She said more than 100 people had come to Chicago on planes from San Antonio in just the first half of the month.

Catholic Charities Archdiocese of San Antonio Inc. receives millions of dollars from the federal government’s Shelter and Services Program, and from state, city, county and foundation money.

Chicago also receives a chunk of federal funding. But the program — which provides money for sheltering services to migrants who have been released by the Department of Homeland Security — only applies within 45 days of their release.

“The 45-day time stamp doesn’t work for the model that we have here in Chicago,” Pacione-Zayas said at last month’s briefing.

Chicago has received migrants on planes from New York and Houston, but most come from San Antonio, according to Mary May, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications. Numbers arriving on planes from San Antonio were highest in August, with more than 200 weekly.

“Staffed by shelter professionals, the staging area is cordoned off for privacy, and provides asylum-seekers with basic necessities including water, snacks, and restrooms,” Mary said about the makeshift airport shelter.

Many migrants have been waiting at O’Hare for over a month, sleeping on blow-up mattresses in a heavily trafficked area patrolled by security guards. Purple Catholic Charities blankets coat the hard-tile floor. A black curtain conceals several hundred from public view.

Several migrants interviewed by the Tribune who have been sleeping on the ground at O’Hare said they went through the migrant resource center in San Antonio. With the help of a case manager, they said they were able to arrange transportation to Chicago.

Natalia Caceres, 31, from Caracas, Venezuela, said she had been sleeping at O’Hare for more than a month. A different church in San Antonio provided funding for her family to make it to Chicago. She has four children under the age of 14.

“It was so helpful, because we don’t have savings. We were so thankful,” she said in Spanish.

The city of Denver has also supplied transportation for migrants who arrive and want to go to other cities within the U.S., according to Jon Ewing, a spokesperson for Denver Human Services. Denver mostly sends people on bus or train, but occasionally will also buy plane tickets.

Ewing said in a recent statement that many migrants never intended to come to Colorado. The city asks them where they want to go.

“I would add that Denver also experiences severe winters and has limited resources, which we communicate to guests upon arrival. Just this past weekend we saw 6 inches of snow fall and experienced temperatures in the teens,” Ewing said.

Denver has spent $4,289,568 on transportation to other cities and has bought tickets for over 10,000 people since January — about a third of those to Chicago, according to data provided by Ewing.

But those coming from Denver or other cities sometimes arrive outside channels of city communication, without representatives to greet them.

This has made those working with migrants on the ground in Chicago wonder if the city’s total census numbers are actually higher than what they report.

Heather Nichols, one of the volunteers leading efforts at the police station in Garfield Park, said her station is close to a CTA Blue Line station and receives a stream of migrants who arrive outside of city-coordinated bus schedules.

“Folks who arrive at the Greyhound without OEMC representatives being there will be told to report to a police station,” Nichols said.

Ford of Catholic Charities in San Antonio said she has worked in Illinois and knows the risks that low temperatures can pose to people who aren’t accustomed to the cold. She said her team wants to make sure migrants who come into their care have the “dignity they deserve.”

She said case managers in San Antonio don’t ask why migrants want to go to their final destinations.

“It’s just like when somebody’s hungry, we don’t ask the circumstances for why they’re hungry. We just ask: You’re hungry, how can I help you?” she said.

Chicago Tribune’s Alice Yin and Laura Rodríguez Presa contributed.