December 4, 2023

Chicago’s Migrant Crisis Intensifies as Tent Cities Emerge

By Karalynn Cromack, Riley Malcolm and Justin Valle

Laurie Hasbrook is a freelance activist who got connected with neighborhood WhatsApp groups to support the more than 24,000 migrants arriving in Chicago over the past several months.

“There was just an incredible organic network, predominantly almost all women who saw the need,” she said.

Many of these local efforts have reached great success such as Nuevos Vecinos, a free store for those in need to find necessities. Hasbrook has grown a network through community efforts in the St. Gertrude’s Church, Leon Beach and community events like clothing drives. Those serve as a testament to her belief in how effective and timely aid has come about through concerned citizens in comparison to formal government.

“In a time of crisis our government agencies are so bureaucratic they are completely unprepared,” she said. “It has become clear to me that the more communities connect each other with resources the better off everyone is.”

Hasbrook’s grassroots work is part of a larger effort in Chicago to find a way to flow the thousands of migrants arriving by bus from Texas every few days. Large encampment sites around the city to house the migrants seeking asylum have raised issues over migrant safety and security.

Read more: Protesters challenging tent cities as temperatures fall

The increase in the migrant homeless population in Chicago stems from migrants being sent from Texas, where migrants cross into the U.S., to sanctuary cities.

As a way to manage the influx of more than 380,000 immigrants coming through the Texas border, Gov. Greg Abbott, through Operation Lone Star, has sent over 500 busloads of these displaced migrants to major cities. These sanctuary cities are primarily New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Chicago. The issue that arises is because Abbott is sending more migrants than these sanctuary cities can handle.

Since August of 2022, Chicago has received more than 24,000 asylum seekers, primarily Venezuelans fleeing political and economic turmoil. This has resulted in “an increase in the sheltered population from 2,612 in 2022 to 5,149 in 2023” according to Chicago’s Point-in-Time analysis for 2023.

The Point-in-Time metric is measured based on how many people in Chicago are experiencing homelessness on any given day, and in 2023, the number has risen to 6,139 housed and unhoused people. Nearly half of this demographic are asylum seekers.

The strain caused by the homeless population is more than doubling, homeless shelters and refuge sites are dealing with more pressure, and are unable to effectively meet the needs caused by the arrival of migrants.

This population spike has left Chicago officials searching for a quick solution, leading to the creation of migrant camps, known as “tent cities” across the city. These makeshift shelters have emerged as a means of temporary housing until officials can create a plan to solve these issues.

“We need money. It’s impossible for a city to absorb all this and we need ways to relocate people where there might be more jobs or more space,” Hasbrook said.

To aid the crisis, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announced on Nov. 16 that the state will invest $160 million into housing the migrant homeless population.

As the concerns of safety and reliable solutions rise, Chicago officials have been trying to develop a solution for the protection of migrants.

Mayor Brandon Johnson has been consistent with the temporary proposals of tent cities and sheltering in community buildings, although the city has been taking in busses of migrants while figuring out where to house them.

Residents have expressed concern about sharing resources and not being well informed on the situation ahead of time. In addition to those living in the neighborhoods, the City Council has also been hesitant to back Johnson, which has led to delays in funding and action taking place.

There has been ongoing hostility in attitudes surrounding providing refuge. For some these feelings stem from racism, but Jennifer Jones, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, shed light on valid criticisms of those who feel neglected by the city already.

“I do think it’s important that we distinguish between people who are resentful of migrants and don’t want them to get resources and folks who are calling on their governments to be transparent and accountable about their decision-making and what that’s going to entail,” she said.

In an effort to be more transparent about the process, Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th Ward) has formed a conjoined effort through the 40th Ward website to give civilians access to the number of immigrants being transported and the shelters offered to them.

Jones said Chicago could reduce the lack of shelter by making use of vacant buildings that have been out of use, which is a solution that could have been brought to the table sooner.

“My understanding is that there is a committee that was supposed to be discussing immigration and refugee issues over the last couple of years and they haven’t been meeting,” she said.

Though Mayor Brandon Johnson has made strides to mitigate the effects of the recent migrant influx and provide resources to migrants, many residents in neighborhoods throughout the city have expressed discontent regarding both the efforts of city officials and the growing migrant population overall.

Brighton Park resident Leslie Garcia, a daughter of two Mexican immigrants, said residents in her community are upset.

“I think they are angry with the changes that are being made,” she said. “People don’t want to live near a place that is a constant reminder of sadness and poverty.”

Brighton Park has historically been a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, and the recent influx of South American migrants has left the community at a crossroads. As Garcia discussed with me, members of the community are fearful of the potential consequences that could arise from housing migrants in need of work, shelter, and basic resources.

“Poverty can be a huge influence on crime, and of course, families don’t want to have their families growing up in such conditions,” Garcia said.

Such concerns are not uncommon. Residents in Chicago’s Morgan Park neighborhood have expressed similar apprehension.

Morgan Park resident and activist Patrick Gibbons said, “The fact is, in the Roseland community, there’s crime, violence, gangs. It is through the roof here, and we need to protect our own people before we take care of people from the outside.”

Tent cities, such as the one proposed within the Morgan Park neighborhood, are amongst the initiatives made by city officials to assist in the influx of migrants. For Morgan Park residents, an empty lot that was supposed to be transformed into a shopping mall, is now being considered for a temporary housing area.

For the migrants themselves, access to upward mobility is minimal. As reported by CBS News, only a quarter of the estimated 20,000 migrants within Chicago city limits are eligible for special protection and work permits provided by the federal government.

Referred to as Federal Temporary Protected Status, migrants from countries and nations designated by the federal government as unsafe, are allowed to legally work and live in the United States for up to 18 months. Beneficial in theory, such eligibility can only be provided to migrants who arrived before July 31, 2023, and typically consists of an application process that requires an attorney.

As with many other democratic-run cities being targeted by Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s bussing campaign, state and city officials within Illinois are scrambling to implement long-term solutions.

Pritzker is urging the Biden Administration to address the influx of migrants and has maintained consistent communication with the federal government since the first bus of migrants arrived in 2022.

While many Chicago residents wait for the city to get a handle on the current migrant crisis, there remains a consistent sentiment of humanity.

‘‘These people are incredible. They are resilient, they’re brave, they’re strong, and they’re desperate” Hasbrook said.

migrant graphic

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