CHICAGO — Emily Barrueta, an asylum seeker, was sitting on the floor of the Near West (12th) District police station Wednesday with her 5-year-old on her lap and a thermometer tucked under his arm.
The instrument beeped. Her young son, laying on a makeshift bed on the tile floor, had a fever of 102.9 degrees.
The worried mother rushed to the bathroom and waited in line, dampening hand towels to try to cool her son down.
Barrueta is worried for her son, she said. She’s been at the police station with her family for two weeks, and each member of her family has been sick: “fever, diarrhea, vomiting,” she said.
“I am afraid,” Barrueta said. “There are so many sick people here. We all get sick from the same thing, because we are all stuck together.”
Barrueta is one of 200 migrants living at the Near West Side police station, 1412 S. Blue Island Ave., their sleeping bags and belongings covering nearly every inch of the station’s lobby.
The situation feels “desperate,” she said.
When Chicago first started housing migrants in police stations as emergency overflow shelters over the winter, officials expected it’d be a temporary solution. But nine months later, men, women and children are still sleeping on police station floors in what volunteers have called “inhumane” conditions.
One year ago this week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent the first buses of migrants to Chicago to protest federal immigration policies. Other governors followed suit.
Since then, Chicago has struggled to care for thousands of asylum seekers. More than 200 buses and planes carrying 13,500 people have arrived in Chicago since August 2022.
About 6,600 are currently being housed in city-run shelters, and another 2,000 are living in police stations and airports, officials said.
The city, state and feds have allocated $350 million to address the needs of those arriving. The city has opened 16 shelters.
But the buses keep coming. A year into this humanitarian crisis, Chicago’s stopgap solutions are failing, volunteers said. And Mayor Brandon Johnson hasn’t articulated a plan to address the crisis.
For a year, Abbott and others have sent migrants who crossed over the United States-Mexico border to Democrat-led cities as a political stunt. Thousands of people had already arrived in New York and Washington, D.C. when Abbott tacked Chicago onto his list of destinations last summer.
As buses of up to 100 people arrived, Chicago officials received a few hours’ heads-up that a new bus was on its way — or none at all. Soon, the buses came nearly every other day. Officials had no way of knowing what the people on board would need after enduring monthlong journeys from home.
Most arrivals are from Venezuela, which has struggled with political upheaval and an economic crisis resulting in severe food and medicine shortages, surging inflation and rising unemployment and violent crime. As of this summer, 7.3 million Venezuelans have fled their country.
Despite zero communication or coordination from Texas, Chicago leaders committed to helping. Since last year, city and state officials have turned hotels, vacant buildings, closed schools and park district facilities into temporary shelters.
There are 16 temporary migrant shelters in the city as of Thursday, city leaders said.
In September 2022, Gov. JB Pritzker declared a state of emergency and activated Illinois National Guard members to receive people at shelters. Prior to leaving office in May, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a state of emergency at the city level.
Throughout the first few months of this year — and with the backdrop of the municipal elections — the pace of bus arrivals slowed dramatically.
But the city was caught flat-footed when dozens of asylum seekers began arriving at O’Hare International Airport in April after a Texas-based charity gave people free tickets to Chicago.
The arrivals at both of Chicago’s airports and Downtown’s Union Station steadily picked up throughout the spring until the city was once again unprepared to house, feed and transport the thousands arriving.
As Lightfoot left office, she failed to address the crisis she was leaving behind in her farewell speech. Alderpeople and those working on the front lines with migrants said Lightfoot’s team was “woefully unprepared” to tackle the crisis. Johnson, who was slated to take office the following week, hadn’t offered up a specific plan, either.
People were directed to police stations and told to call 311 to find shelter, but space was limited.
At first, waiting at a police station for a shelter space was a temporary solution, only meant to take a few hours. But soon hours turned into days, which turned into weeks. What was once a stopgap became a de-facto city procedure.
This week, more than 200 people were sleeping in just the Near West Side station.
One woman, who asked not to named to protect her chances at getting asylum, has been staying at the Near West Side station for less than a week. But there are folks who have been there for months, she said.
“Kind neighbors are bringing enough food, clothes — but there isn’t enough space,” she said, pointing to the air mattress on the sidewalk she’s been sleeping on.
‘Not Equipped To Deal With This Type Of Humanitarian Crisis’
For months, nonprofit partners and mutual aid volunteers on the front lines with migrants have stressed the need for more support from all levels of government to alleviate the strain put on neighbors and police stations.
The city continues to open temporary shelters, including one in a Kenwood hotel. But moves like this have been fiercely protested by neighbors, some who say they’re blindsided by the city’s unilateral decision making and only given a day’s notice before the city starts moving migrants in.
Many neighbors applaud the city’s efforts to shelter migrants in this emergency, but some have protested and sued the city over these actions.
Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said the way to bring Chicagoans together on this issue is through “education and awareness,” he told Block Club.
Asylum seekers sleeping on the floors of police stations are unhoused Chicagoans, too, Vasquez said, and the systems the city needs to build to address the current humanitarian crisis can also be used to help unhoused people who were here before the buses started arriving.
“Instead of two competing systems for housing, we need one that addresses everyone who needs it,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez said he thinks Johnson’s administration has been more open and collaborative than former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s team, but also said the city is too reactive and spending a lot of resources “putting out fires” at the expense of figuring out how to approach the ongoing crisis in a proactive way.
The committee chair said he understood frustration with the slower pace of city-led efforts, but said he’s impressed at how Chicagoans have stepped up over the past year.
“[Volunteers] are going down and doing all this work out of their own time, their own energy and not getting paid to do it. They’re meeting these challenges on the ground,” Vasquez said. “We’re trying to do our best at communicating the challenges municipal government has in closing that resource gap.”
Some City Council members have also blasted the city’s handling of shelter plans and for diverting attention and funding away from persistent problems that plague neighbors, like a lack of affordable housing and mental health services, they’ve said.
The Inn of Chicago, located in Downtown’s 42nd Ward, is the largest and longest-running migrant shelter in the city. There are about 1,500 people staying there, officials said this week.
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), whose ward includes this shelter, said at a July City Council committee meeting the Inn of Chicago has been experiencing “no rule of law,” adding there’s been numerous complaints about consumption of narcotics, drinking in the public way and garbage in the streets.
“There are plenty of people who are breaking the shelter rules and our city laws, and this is making both the Inn of Chicago unsafe for its residents but also putting the Streeterville neighborhood at risk as well,” Reilly said at the meeting. He declined to comment further to Block Club.
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), whose ward borders Inn of Chicago, said he never imagined the city would be in this situation a year later, “seemingly stuck in an infinite loop that is simply not sustainable” for the city and migrant families alike.
Hopkins, like many other city officials, is calling on the federal government to provide more financial support for the ongoing crisis.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that the city of Chicago as a municipal government isn’t capable of providing an end game,” Hopkins said. “You know, even in our best efforts, we’re just simply not equipped to deal with this type of humanitarian crisis. Especially when we know that any day now, more buses could arrive.”
‘A Long-Term Dynamic’
During a press conference Wednesday, Johnson joined state and federal leaders as they called for long-term solutions. But he didn’t elaborate on what the city’s plan is to address the growing influx of migrants and left as reporters were asking questions.
“The city of Chicago cannot go on welcoming new arrivals safely and capably without significant support and immigration policy changes,” Johnson said to the crowd. “Since the first bus arrived a year ago, it’s become increasingly clear that welcoming new arrivals is not a short-term crisis — it’s a long-term dynamic.”
Throughout his first 100 days in office, Johnson said a top priority was to get folks moved out of police stations and into more stable housing. But he hasn’t offered a specific plan to address this humanitarian crisis in the long run.
In a statement Thursday, mayoral spokesperson Hannah Fierle said the city has invested in resettlement case management and rental assistance to help migrants who have been in shelters the longest transition into the community. She also said the city and state leaders are collaborating on “future phases.”
Johnson, along with Pritzker, Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García and Sen. Dick Durbin, have also been pushing President Joe Biden’s administration to enact national immigration policies that would help at the local level.
One of these potential solutions would be to amend federal immigration law to fast-track work authorizations for migrants as they wait for their asylum cases to be heard, leaders have said.
Under this change, states could sponsor those applying for asylum and other undocumented workers to find jobs in industries facing labor shortages. This would both help the economy and aid unemployed migrants support themselves, officials said.
“This would be a benefit to the country,” García told Block Club. “It’s a common sense solution, where employers need more workers and migrants want to work. It’s important for the [Biden] administration to be strong and to be bold.”
There is also a “dire” shortage of lawyers and case workers in immigration law, which is worsening the chances people have of even making a successful asylum case, nonprofit partners have said.
The “clock is ticking” on migrants who only have a year upon arrival to apply for asylum, one nonprofit leader previously said. Many who came by bus last fall lost crucial weeks or months because they weren’t offered legal help in Texas before coming here. Now, those people are “getting awfully close to the deadline.”
Nonprofits offering legal aid said they need more funding from the government and people to step up and join the efforts.
Pritzker said during Thursday’s press conference $350 million in total has been spent on efforts to help asylum seekers — $250 million from the state, $100 million from the city and about $38 million of reimbursement from the federal government.
‘There Is No Over For This’
Kathleen Murphy, a volunteer who’s been working with asylum seekers in Pilsen, said she expected the city’s handling to improve more over the past year.
“We thought that there would be stronger systems in place to where we’re not relying almost exclusively on people power,” she said. “This is only going to get exponentially worse in the years to come with people migrating because of climate change reasons, and we can’t even handle the relatively small amount of people that are here now? For me, this has been like alarm bells sounding about how we need to fundamentally be behaving different as a society.”
Murphy and dozens of other volunteers are part of a community coalition called Todo Para Todos, which opened a mutual aid shelter in Pilsen to get people out of the nearby 12th District police station in May.
The shelter housed more than 200 people since the spring and was heralded as a prime example of how neighbors have stepped up to help asylum seekers as the city has struggled.
But the shelter is now closing this weekend because of a continued lack of city assistance, Murphy said. The recent availability of volunteers and donations wasn’t enough to keep the endeavor sustainable, she said.
There are about 70 people the group still needs to find housing for, she said.
“There is no over for this,” Murphy said. “There’s this narrative that this is going to be over at some point, and we keep calling it a quote-unquote migrant crisis, which to me makes it sound like people think there’s going to be a point in our future where this isn’t happening. The solution has to be creative and intersectional or it’s as good as nothing.”
The city is rolling out a request for proposals in which nonprofits will be able to apply to take over operations at a city-funded shelter starting in the winter or request funding to continue running shelters they established on their own, according to the city’s Department of Family and Support Services.
Murphy said Todo Para Todos wasn’t eligible to be part of this because their group isn’t an official nonprofit.
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), who helped spearhead the launch of the Todo Para Todos shelter last spring, said he and neighbors are working to open another shelter in the ward, which could alleviate some pressure on the nearby police station.
As chair of the council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate, Sigcho-Lopez also oversaw the city take the first step this week toward buying a North Park property formerly used by the U.S. Marine Corps and converting it into a shelter to house about 550 migrants.
The move to buy the 10.7-acre property at 3034 W. Foster Ave., using $1.5 million in funding from the Lawrence and Kedzie Tax-Increment Financing (TIF) District, is expected to go before a full vote of the City Council this month.
By increasing the city’s housing and shelter stock, Sigcho-Lopez said he thinks “Chicago can be a blueprint, can be an example” of taking care of immigrants and people experiencing homelessness.
Wendy Rodriguez hopes to be one of those asylum seekers eventually moved out of the 12th District police station, where she’s been sleeping the past week.
Two months ago, Rodriguez made the journey from her home country of Venezuela to the U.S. alone, leaving behind her family and kids in hopes of being able to support them once she lands a job here.
She decided to go alone to protect her children, saying the journey was not safe for them.
“It is not easy,” she said Wednesday afternoon while sitting on the police station floor.
“I came with a great desire to work and give the best of me to get ahead. And the Americans have been very kind, they are looking after [us] — the food, the clothes, everything. Thank God, everything has been very good, but we are waiting for them to take us to a shelter, because we are just here [at the station].”
Rodriguez said sleeping on the police station floor without a bed is uncomfortable. She fears being robbed outside, so she chooses to rest in the police station at night.
“At least they are giving us this opportunity to be here in this station so that we can all find a little space to lie down here, because we cannot be in the street — it is dangerous,” Rodriguez said.
As people milled about the police station, Rodriguez tucked into a corner that she staked out with a friend atop a blanket, surrounded by piles of people’s belongings.
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