An OEMC team members distributes food and water to newly arrived migrants in the South Loop on Oct. 6, 2023. Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago

SOUTH LOOP — More than a year after border-state governors began busing asylum seekers to Chicago, city workers say they still don’t have enough Spanish-speaking staff to help migrants when they arrive.

The stretch of West Vernon Park Place, between South Jefferson and South Clinton streets, is the city’s “landing zone” for migrants. It’s just down the street from the Greyhound bus station, 630 W. Harrison St., where buses filled with asylum seekers pull in before they’re redirected to this one-block stretch.

On any given day, a team of three or four people and a few vans from the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications are posted at the landing zone. The vans are stocked with clothes, food and other supplies ready to be handed out to the migrants.

Often, the sheer number of asylum seekers arriving at the landing zone overwhelms the small team, city workers said.

Seven of the 14 OEMC staffers assigned to the landing zone speak Spanish, according to a city official — but as few as two Spanish-speaking staffers may end up on one shift, tasked with being the first point of contact for dozens of asylum seekers, workers said.

On Oct. 6, two buses filled with migrants arrived within 20 minutes of each other. Shorthanded, the city workers asked a bilingual Block Club reporter to help translate as they began talking to each person to assess their needs.

“People arriving will sometimes help us if they speak a little English, reminding other people they were on the bus with to just take one sandwich, because we don’t know how many more buses are coming today,” one OEMC worker said.

Block Club spoke to the OEMC team at the landing zone but is withholding their names as they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

A bus filled with asylum seekers pulls into the city-run landing zone in the South Loop on Oct. 6, 2023. Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago

Guessing Game On When Buses Will Arrive

The city has received more than 18,500 migrants since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other border-state politicians began busing them to Chicago in August 2022, in protest of federal immigration policies.

Of the 433 total buses that have come to Chicago, 323 of them arrived since May 12, according to city data.

The majority of the asylum seekers are from Venezuela, which has struggled with political upheaval and an economic crisis resulting in severe food and medicine shortages, surging inflation, rising unemployment and violent crime.

Working in shifts, the city team typically arrives at the landing zone around 7 a.m. and remains there waiting for buses, sometimes as late as midnight, they told Block Club. While they wait, they try to glean “intelligence” from social media, their bosses and other resources on when the next bus might arrive.

Some workers said they have given their personal contact information to bus drivers after they drop migrants off, asking to be added to group chats so the city staffers can stay on top of the daily caravan of buses headed to Chicago. 

But due to the lack of communication from officials sending asylum seekers to Chicago, the team can only guess at how many buses will arrive, when they’ll pull up and how many people they’ll have inside.

The only thing the workers know for sure is the buses keep coming. 

“We call it ‘ghost busting’ because we’re never sure if a bus we’ve heard about that might come in will actually arrive, or will be a ghost bus we wait hours for but never arrives,” one OEMC worker said.

Asylum seekers, many from Venezuela, arrive at the city-run landing zone in the South Loop on Oct. 6, 2023. Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago

First Point Of Contact

When a bus does arrive, a Spanish-speaking team member will do a headcount, assign each person a number and ask questions about their needs. They’ll direct them to the nearest bathroom, check if they need medical attention and ask if they have family or friends they can contact, workers said.

One day earlier this month, the team helped a woman who had given birth three days prior.

Migrants with a number are then guided to a table with sandwiches, apples, fruit cups and water. There, another team member explains the address of the landing zone and offers them access to two mobile Wi-Fi hotspots and two cell phones, which they can use while they wait to be picked up by someone they know or taken to a city-run shelter.

Another staff member hands out blankets or warmer clothes.

The buses typically carry between 20-50 people. If one bus arrives in a day, the team can usually handle the volume of asylum seekers with just two translators, staffers said.

But when five or more buses come in a day, especially if they arrive in short intervals, the team can easily get overwhelmed, they said. 

The team members assigned to the landing zone are also expected to be on call to respond to other OEMC responsibilities like special events or extreme weather, they said.

During those overwhelming periods, some of the newly arrived migrants try to help by repeating communication from the staffers to fellow asylum seekers, but the intake process remains chaotic while the need for supplies and resources grows, workers said.

Those issues have compounded as more buses roll in — on average between eight and 15 each day this month, according to the city officials.

“We can cover the basics of food, water and blankets. But some things we still need, especially with the weather getting colder, are a mix of shoes, sweaters, winter jackets in different sizes. The OEMC has an Amazon wish list where you can see what we need,” one city worker said.

“The Amazon list helps keep us organized and from doubling up on things that might already be coming in. Other things we really need right now are deodorant and different sizes of underwear,” the worker said.

A family of asylum seekers at the landing zone in the South Loop were told to wait inside a yellow school bus during the cold wind and rain on Oct. 6, 2023. Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago

Divided Resources

Language Line is the vendor OEMC uses for its 911 and 311 phone services that provides help with up to 240 languages, said OEMC spokeswoman Mary May. 

Translators from Language Line aren’t at the landing zone in the South Loop, however.

“Because of the nature of the mission, we only utilize city staff or staff from organizations we have partnered with since the beginning of the mission on an as-needed basis,” May said. “If there is an organization that would like to help, you can connect them with the Mayor’s Office of Community Engagement or they can visit” 

OEMC has 14 staff members assigned to take shifts waiting for the buses; half of them speak Spanish, May said. 

“At the landing zone there are OEMC Emergency Managers present who speak Spanish, as well as other city of Chicago employees there who also speak Spanish. On any given day, there are at least four to five Spanish speakers available to help with the new arrivals as they get off the buses,” May said.

But OEMC employees Block Club spoke to said that’s not enough for the work they’re doing on daily basis.

One Oct. 6, only two OEMC Spanish speakers were at the site for periods of the day.

At one point in the late afternoon, one of them was busy distributing clothes to a group of asylum seekers while the other staffer was still processing people from a newly arrived bus. One of the migrants appeared to need medical attention, which resulted in a call to 911 for paramedics to come to the landing zone.

This, in turn, left an English-speaking OEMC worker trying to explain to a group of migrants who only spoke Spanish how a Wi-Fi hotspot works and give them the address of the landing zone.

OEMC team members told Block Club they’re frustrated they’re still expected to assist with the city’s wide portfolio of emergency management issues, like extreme weather and specials events, while trying to keep up with the daily influx of buses. 

For example, during a lull in bus arrivals Oct. 6, one team member was pulled away from the landing zone to help set up signs for the Chicago Marathon in Grant Park.

“We’ll probably be here until midnight in case more buses arrive,” a worker said. “We’ve gotten really good at holding our bladders.”

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