Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Mayor Lori Lightfoot (Brandon Bell & Kamil Krzaczynski/ Getty Images)

In just over a week, a newly elected mayor and a cohort of newly elected alderpersons will be sworn into office and have their hands full addressing crime, public transportation and the city’s pension mess. 

While these issues remain top of mind, Chicago has been staring down a manufactured migrant crisis for months that has entered a boiling point — leaving vulnerable asylum seekers in despair and struggling to find safe shelter. 

It’s an issue that city officials are warning could end terribly without federal intervention and could see a midyear budget amendment to cover some of the funding holes.

This comes as a federal policy that limits the number of asylum seekers is set to expire later this month, and the city could see even more asylum seekers being sent here from southern border states. It’s unclear how the new City Council will approach this issue, but leaders continue to ring the alarm.

Chicago has prided itself as a welcoming city for migrants and has pulled all the stops to give aid to these new arrivals, many of who had faced persecution in their home country. 

But how did the city get to this point where families are sleeping on the floors of police stations and being served expired food?

Who’s behind the problem?

The mastermind behind the mass shipping of migrants from the southern border to Democrat-led cities is Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. The Republican governor originally said the action was in response to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies that were “overwhelming border communities in Texas.

Sanctuary cities like Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C., were the prime destination of Abbott’s initiative. City officials had said they were given little notice and left scrambling to provide essential care to these incoming migrants.

It was widely seen as a political stunt from Abbott as he was seeking a third term. Chicago received the first busload of migrants on August 31 — about two months before voters hit the booths to vote for governor of Texas. 

Abbott would go on to easily win reelection against Democrat challenger and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke. 

“They are treating people like inanimate objects,” Rev. Sandra Castillo said of Abbott’s policy. “They are taking human beings who have suffered persecution in their home countries, who have traveled a dangerous journey and showing zero empathy.” 

Castillo, chair of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago Sanctuary Task Force, was on the ground in those first few weeks and has been helping asylum seekers as they continue to come in nearly a year later. 

“I have to commend the network between the city and the various nonprofits because we can’t do anything without partnerships and coalition building,” Castillo said.

She said the city jumped into action quickly by setting up temporary housing in hotels and establishing welcoming centers that not only helped with getting folks settled but also with addressing their dire medical needs. 

What was especially concerning, Castillo said, was someone in Texas was giving these asylum seekers false information before arriving in Chicago. That provided additional hurdles with people going to the wrong location.

“We noticed then that someone was putting bogus addresses on papers for people and it didn’t exist,” Castillo said. “One young man was told to go to Catholic Charities, but it didn’t exist at that location.”

They were able to shift through that confusion to find asylum seekers temporary housing. 

But resources are finite, and the crisis has reached a magnitude that is leaving already vulnerable families in trouble. 

A brewing crisis

Chicago is a “Welcoming City” which provides a level of protection to undocumented residents who can’t be “prosecuted solely due to their immigration status.” There are certain measures in place that prevent Chicago police from cooperating with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

All city services and benefits are also available to all Chicagoans regardless of immigration status.

So far, the city has welcomed more than 8,000 migrants since the first bus of migrants arrived in August. It hasn’t always been easy as the mayor’s office has found itself in heated discussion over its policies with some longtime residents feeling left out of the conversation. 

Late last year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot pushed to turn a shuttered school in Woodlawn into a shelter for migrants, but that decision faced pushback with Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), saying she was blindsided by the move and vowed to fight against it

Taylor argued there was zero input from her or the community and the move was putting these migrants at a disadvantage because the cultural infrastructure wasn’t in place. The closed school at 6420 S. University Ave. is in a majority Black neighborhood.

The city would go on to open the shelter in February and met a small resistance from residents. A month later, the City Council approved to accept $20 million from the state to support incoming migrants. 

Last week the city was caught flat-footed when migrants began arriving at O’Hare International Airport. Those arriving were Venezuelan migrants and given a one-way ticket from Texas. About 40 people, mostly young women and children slept outside a homelessness center inside the airport, Block Club Chicago reported

City officials have shared interests in sheltering new migrants at the old South Shore High School building and hosted a contentious meeting Thursday. The chaotic meeting delved into a shouting match with some residents demanding the temporary shelter be opened in a more affluent area of the city where an abundance of resources already exists.

Two days after the new arrivals, the city’s Budget Director Susie Park warned the City Council there is a $53 million shortfall to meet the surging crisis. The Chicago Sun-Times later reported asylum seekers were sleeping on the floors of police stations and eating expired meal rations.

“The City of Chicago is aware that the State of Texas is planning to resume busing individuals and families to cities throughout the United States, including Chicago,” Lightfoot said in an open letter to Abbott. “I am, yet again, appealing to your better nature and asking that you stop this inhumane and dangerous action.” 

Lightfoot said the migrants arriving needed extensive care and some were even women in  labor. None of these concerns was addressed before sending them to Chicago, she said. 

“Instead, these individuals and families were packed onto buses and shipped across the country like freight without regard to their personal circumstances,” Lightfoot said. 

Abbott responded to Lightfoot with his own letter. 

“If you truly want to ‘work together to find a real solution’ to this border crisis gripping our nation, you must call on the Biden Administration to do its job by securing our border, repelling the illegal immigrants flooding into our communities,” Abbott wrote. “Until President Biden secures the border to stop the inflow of mass migration, Texas will continue this necessary program.”

Abbott warned if Title 42 ends as anticipated on May 11 then there would be an even larger surge of migrants entering the southern border — about 13,000 migrants per day. 

Title 42 was implemented in 2020 by former President Donald Trump and allows the United States to quickly expel asylum seekers from the southern border before they can ask for asylum. 

“If Chicago can’t deal with 8,000 in less than a year, how are small Texas border communities supposed to manage 13,000 in just one day?” Abbott asked.

Texas has used roughly $1 billion in federal coronavirus dollars to pay for its crackdown at the border. 

Castillo rejects the idea that there isn’t enough money to help these families and that responsibility should be with the federal government and not cities like Chicago that can only do so much.

The federal government should be using the money for supportive services rather than enforcement policies, Castillo said. Her organization helps on a humanitarian level but it is ultimately the federal government to step in. 

Pressing needs

Castillo said these migrants have several pressing needs, but none is greater than housing. Shelters are being overwhelmed, leaving people homeless in a city they aren’t familiar with. 

Housing is also critical for finding aid for asylum seekers.

“Because we have to have at least short-term housing for them before we are able to reach out to a nonprofit that can provide case management services,” Castillo said. “Then the nonprofit can provide them with support in applying for the medical card or they can apply for SNAP benefits.”

Yuritza Arroyo, welcoming center manager at the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, said even finding people a shelter has proved difficult. 

“When we were dealing with the first wave it would generally take us about two hours to find new arrivals a shelter to stay in,” Arroyo said. “Now, families are waiting a few weeks so they’re left stranded anywhere they can sleep, which is often at a church or a police station.” 

What is different now is that hotels aren’t helping anymore. Hotels were seen as a lifeline but those hotels relied on city dollars to host them, Arroyo said. Without the city paying the hotels, she added, the hotels are sitting out as the crisis grows. 

The state did also help with putting migrants in hotels and providing essential services in the early months. On Thursday, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle called on state lawmakers to start doing more in supporting asylum seekers

“It’s not just asylum seekers coming from Texas,” Arroyo said. “People saw how well we were helping migrants last summer and are coming here from other states looking for the same help, but it’s different now.” 

The city is at a breaking point and it is time for much needed intervention, activists said.

“We are at the point where the federal government needs to step in and provide the states experiencing the influx of new arrival families with more resources,” Arroyo said. “It is up to the federal government to declare this a humanitarian crisis.”

Reporting on equity issues by the BGA is supported by Joel M. Friedman, president of the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund.

Manny Ramos is a former solutions and accountability reporter at the Illinois Answers Project.