Southern governors’ use of immigrants as pawns creates emergency in Chicago
Two immigrant children play in an area of the Chicago Police Department's 16th District station where their families have taken shelter. Chicago has seen the number of new arrivals grow tenfold in recent days. | Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

CHICAGO—Bags of clothing, rolled up and unrolled thin mattresses, pillows just purchased at a Family Dollar store, and blankets were all over the floors with children, women, and men crowded together under and on top of those blankets. The lucky ones had their heads on an available pillow. In the next room, people were eating cold breakfasts of scrambled eggs and bacon that were supposed to be hot. Some were consuming outdated prepared meals. The scene last week was not in a homeless shelter here but in a police station on the city’s North Side.

Just days before she was to hand over her office to new Mayor Brandon Johnson, outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot last week was forced to declare a state of emergency in Chicago because of the callous use of immigrants as pawns by right-wing Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas. Day after day, busloads of human beings who have battled months of inhumane treatment trying to reach America are now arriving in Chicago.

They are being placed onto the buses and shipped here by Texas Republican lawmakers who care not that many of the children and adults are weak, hungry, and sick with COVID, conjunctivitis (pink eye), and other illnesses. They and their parents have often endured the abuse of human traffickers and others who preyed on them as they made the perilous journey from a Central American country to the Texas border only to be treated like human cattle and sent to Chicago.

Even as people and organizations here struggle to welcome the immigrants, Chicagoans are increasingly desperate to find ways to do so.

It’s not just the bus terminals that are straining under the weight of new arrivals. Plane loads of immigrants discarded like trash by Republican governors in Southern states are also arriving at O’Hare Airport and sent from there to North Side and police stations in other areas of the city, where they await placement in any type of shelter that can be found for them.

Cataleya sits atop her father, Elier as he speaks to a police officer while other migrants wait for a bus to take them to a refugee center outside Union Station in Chicago, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. | Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

A big problem for Chicago as it tries to accommodate the nearly 10,000 immigrants who recently arrived—a number growing by a hundred or more every day—is that the $150 million already spent doing so comes has been scraped up entirely by the city itself. Unlike Texas, for example, municipalities like Chicago do not receive a dime in federal funds.

Divide and conquer

The State of Texas, however, which collects hundreds of millions of federal dollars to help process immigrants, takes that money for God knows what purpose but dumps the immigrants for whom it is intended onto buses and planes headed for Chicago and other Northern cities like New York and Washington, D.C.

Immigrants shipped northward are being dumped out, for example, onto the streets outside the D.C. home of Vice President Kamala Harris, a disgrace the likes of which are seen almost nowhere around the world.

“This is a violation of the basic norms of human dignity—using these immigrants as pawns,” the Rev. Suzanne Wille, rector of the All Saints Episcopal Church in the Northside neighborhood of Ravenswood told People’s World last Sunday after the 11 a.m. Mass.

“Those Southern governors ought to be deeply ashamed of what they are doing. Jesus and the Holy Family were immigrants,” she said. In her sermon that morning at the church, Jacqueline Wayne Guite, a member of the Vestry, characterized as “sinful” the attempt to turn one group of people against another, which she said was happening when mistreated immigrants are callously dumped into “communities already hurting from lack of resources.”

The emergency in Chicago is set to intensify as Southern governors continue to use immigrants as pieces in their political game of creating chaos to gain votes for their party in the 2024 elections.

Chicago has always tried to be officially seen as a city that welcomes immigrants, whether they were from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Mexico, or other points in Central America. Corporations have almost always exploited those immigrants as a cheap labor force, of course, but there have always been those in the city who tried to battle against that and extend a welcome to newcomers.

Unions like SEIU and Unite Here, for example, representing janitors and hospitality workers, have large numbers of both Mexican and Polish workers whom they represent. When they rally outside downtown office buildings for better conditions for their workers, the rallies look like international street gatherings, with simultaneous translations from English into Polish and then into Spanish.

Chicago is the place, immigration rights activists point out, where the Hull House of Jane Addams provided a welcome and humane treatment and preparation for jobs and settlement for waves of immigrants in the late 1800s.

The welcoming of immigrants has been part of the DNA of progressive forces in the city, they say, so the current state of emergency is not sitting well with people who want the new immigrants to get a far better deal than they were getting in their home countries and since they arrived in the U.S.

“This is not what is happening right now,” said Sergio Gonzalez, the executive director of Immigration Hub in Chicago. “Millions are on the move in Latin America because of oppression by autocrats and fascists and because of climate change, COVID, and so many other factors.”

He condemned moves by Republican judges who try to block attempts to allow immigrants who have successfully applied for asylum into the country until they receive court dates, just as he condemned Biden administration policies to keep immigrants from coming into the country in the first place to apply for asylum.

“They are not a lawless threat to our country,” he declared. “They are seeking freedom and jobs and the ability to care for themselves and their families.”

City officials are opening a respite center at Piotrowski Park in Little Village for some of the thousands who have come to Chicago in recent weeks.

The Southwest Side park at 4247 W. 31st St. is temporarily housing 200 migrants, according to Alderman Mike Rodriguez, who represents Little Village. The site was chosen in part because of its proximity to local schools and nonprofits, and because Little Village is a predominantly immigrant, Spanish-speaking community, he said.

“Please know that this is a humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in the midst of a mayoral and city council transition,” Rodriguez said.

People from groups like Arise Chicago, the Chicago Workers Collaborative, SEIU volunteers, church members, and others who have been working on the resettlement of refugees note that people sleeping on floors in police stations are not what one would expect of a sanctuary city. They note that the immigrants arriving need placement in a secure shelter, health care, and food, but that action is required since the current system is not meeting those needs.

It’s not just in police stations, of course, that the immigrants are landing. The facility in Little Village, old and new park facilities, particularly along the shore of Lake Michigan, are also being eyed and used as places to house immigrants. The 100+ arriving every day is a sharp increase of the only 12 or so that arrived daily as recently as last March.

The State of Emergency is, as of Monday, in its sixth day. Lightfoot said she had begged Abbott to stop making the crisis worse with his stepped-up shipments of immigrants into Chicago but that he has refused, telling her to “tell my problems to Washington.”

On her last day in office Sunday, Lightfoot said, “We should all understand that this crisis will likely deepen before we see it get better. Through a unified effort in accordance with its values as a welcoming city, Chicago is doing everything it can to respond to the urgency of this matter.”

So far, Illinois Gov. Pritzker, a Democrat, has been the only source of outside help for Chicago. He has provided $30 million in assistance, but that is only about a fifth of what the city has spent so far to open about 10 shelters for the immigrants.

The crisis makes this an even tougher time than what was anticipated in the transition into office of new Mayor Brandon Johnson, who was sworn in Monday. Each day that passes makes the immigration crisis he and the new alderpeople are inheriting worse than the day before.

“This is not a time that I would like to have to take over as mayor, or really a time that anyone can comfortably take over as mayor of a big city,” said an activist who volunteered for Johnson’s campaign effort in a section of the South Side of Chicago.

Meanwhile, police stations around the city, not just on the North Side, continue to be the first stop for immigrants sent here by Abbott. Two policemen in the Hyde Park neighborhood said they were “really worried” about the situation. One cop told People’s World that “the whole first floor of at least one station is filled with people, and we have had to send members of the public who need help or have other business to other police stations that are not as crowded.”

Some of the migrants, including a child observed outside the North Side police station, were ill with conjunctivitis and in need of immediate health care. A pregnant woman was suffering from what appeared to be severe cold symptoms.

When they leave the police stations, immigrants are sent to hotels, vacant schools, and park district buildings for more semi-permanent, if still temporary, shelter. They head out for these locations from the police stations, carrying with them the very few things they own, often all packed into one small bag.

“It’s unsustainable,” said Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, a City Council member who represents parts of the Little Village neighborhood in Chicago.

Immigration rights activists say they wonder how long the use of park facilities as shelters will be supported by people who normally use those facilities for their intended recreational purposes. People have already expressed fear that needed programs in the parks may be forced to cut back or close because of the crisis created by the Republican Southern governors.

The effects of capitalism that foster the exploitation of millions in Latin America and all over the developing world are felt here now in Chicago during this crisis.

“You can say this is part of the divide and conquer strategy,” one alderman told People’s World. “They use things like this to turn people who should be allies against one another.”

The best welcome possible, under the circumstances

Despite their harrowing journeys and the struggles they have faced, most of the immigrants, even with the meager bit of help they receive, are happy to be in Chicago. At All Saints in Ravenswood, they are grateful for the Tuesday night food pantry program.

“They love it here, and they want to stay and work and contribute to society here,” said Gonzales from Immigration Hub. In Chicago, close to a third of the population is Latino, so language difficulties are fewer than there would be elsewhere.

One migrant who spoke English told People’s World that he liked the city already and had been here only for three days. His plan, he said, was to get a construction job. Of course, danger lurks for some of the migrants, as selfish contractors aiming to exploit cheap labor lie in wait.

Elier Salazar Chacon, 29, holds a food ration he retrieved from his bag after arriving on a bus with other migrants from Texas at Union Station Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, in Chicago. | Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune via AP

In the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, children from Guatemala and other Central American countries have gathered in recent weeks at fast food restaurants, outside of which they are picked up in school buses sent by unscrupulous contractors who use them as illegal child labor in manufacturing jobs in and near the city.

Child labor has been illegal for more than a century in the U.S., but it is something that unscrupulous profiteers, backed by Republicans, are working to reinstitute. A Republican legislator in neighboring Iowa said recently that he had no problem with child labor. “Kids stay out until 10 p.m. playing sports,” he said, “so why not stay out to work?”

The good side of human nature is also evident, of course, during this crisis, as some people have opened their homes to immigrants and others have helped find and fund apartments for them. Churches, in particular, have been involved in these efforts.

At the North Side police station, one cop was seen bringing in food he and his wife had prepared for the people staying there, and another was observed entering the precinct with a huge box full of pillows he said he had purchased at a Family Dollar store.

In some neighborhoods already functioning under a severe lack of resources, however, the effort to open large shelters has not always been well received. In the South Shore neighborhood last week, residents gathered in a school auditorium to hear about the city’s plans to turn a former high school into a shelter for migrants.

City Hall officials were booed, and some fearful residents begged the city to put the shelter in another neighborhood. The South Shore area is already suffering from a lack of resources, they said, and they noted that they were worried about the already rampant crime in their area.

For some in the South Shore neighborhood, it was precisely the topic of crime that came to mind as soon as they heard a shelter for immigrants might be set up, according to long-time parishioners of St. Margaret’s church in the area.

The new Brandon Johnson administration plans a holistic approach to dealing with crime in Chicago, one that involves investment in communities and supplementing police presence with the kind of social services needed to deal with so many of the day-to-day problems manifested in the community.

While only a very few at the community meeting were against immigrants coming to the country as a general rule, they did feel that the federal government, not Chicago, should be taking more responsibility and that Chicago needs more federal funding to cope.

Some have bought into the Republican idea that the immigration crisis is the fault of now former Mayor Lightfoot who, they say, did not prepare the city adequately for the influx of immigrants.

That notion was challenged by Gonzalez, who said “The crisis results from policies pursued by fascist leaders overseas who operate at the behest of powerful corporations, by climate change, COVID, and so much more. It also results from the failure to approve a comprehensive immigration reform with a plan for a path to citizenship for immigrants.”

At a city beach house along Lake Michigan, dozens of migrants have been staying temporarily for two weeks now in a space that is used in the summer for beach equipment storage and for lifeguards to take breaks. Many migrants there had only a blanket between them and the hard gym floor, and toddlers and children ran around on cold floors without shoes and socks.

Outside the beach house, a group of migrants accepted bags of food and boxes of pizza that neighborhood folks bought from local stores. One man distributed containers of hot soup. The weather thus far this spring in Chicago has been colder than normal.

A middle-aged immigrant who was staying at the athletic facility said he had previously spent six days sleeping at the police station on the North Side. It had taken him months to reach the border from South America, he said, only to have then been loaded onto a bus by Texas authorities and shipped to Chicago.

“It is so beautiful here in this country,” he said, as he looked out at the blue waters of Lake Michigan where no opposite shoreline was visible. The look of contentment on his face showed no sign of the horrors he had experienced over the last few months, “Really beautiful,” he said again. “I hope I can stay in this country.”

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John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.