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Women-Led Groups in Chicago Spearhead Response to Migrant Influx

As the migrant influx continues, their efforts shine a light on the need for collective action and federal response.

Elier Salazar Chacon, 29, carries his 3-year-old daughter Cataleya Salazar Ramirez while talking with a Chicago police officer after arriving on a bus with other migrants from Texas at Union Station on August 31, 2022, in Chicago.

Over the past year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has bused more than 13,000 migrants to Chicago. Many entered the city with next to nothing — and some didn’t even make it safely. Last month, the Texas Department of Emergency Management announced that a 3-year-old girl had died en route to Chicago from Texas the first known fatality of Abbott’s Operation Lone Star.

For years, Chicago has declared itself a sanctuary city, and substantial state and local resources have been allocated, helping many of the new arrivals tomove into more permanent housing. Still, about 6,500 of these migrants are spread out across 15 shelters, and about 1,500 are sleeping at airports and police stations.

Amid the migrant crisis, women in the city — many who know what it’s like to be displaced — have stepped up to lead efforts to ensure that community members are informed about what’s going on and that new arrivals have access to the housing and other resources they need.

It is an effort borne of their own experiences. Even before it was announced that the city would receive an influx of migrants, advocates within the city were fighting to address homelessness while working with scarce resources.

Luz Cortez, a community assistance program manager for La Casa Norte, an organization seeking to address homelessness in the state, said that when the news broke that the migrants would be entering the city by busload, she immediately began talking with other organizations and figuring out what they could do to build the infrastructure to support the migrants.

“We started just going out to the police station and the pockets where the migrants were gathering to provide food, to see what they had, give new clothes that they can use. Many of them came without shoes. We were trying to look for shoes, just providing more immediate services that were needed,” Cortez said.

As time passed, the Illinois Housing Department of Authority developed a program to provide rental assistance for the migrants. Though advocates say the rental assistance has greatly helped, in most cases, it is guaranteed for only six months.

A first-generation immigrant, Cortez has built connections that she puts to use when assisting migrants. “Luckily, I’ve been here my whole life, so I’m already in contact with a couple of landlords that will rent out to family members who are undocumented,” she said. Cortez said many landlords are cautious about renting to migrants, particularly because they have little income, if any, when they first arrive. She has been strategically leveraging her connections with landlords to help mitigate this.

“We’ve really had to invest in trying to meet with private landlords or landlords who maybe have a company but are more involved in the day-to-day tasks that would be willing to open up their spaces for them,” Cortez said.

In addition to La Casa Norte, another organization leading frontline efforts to support the new arrivals is Instituto del Progreso Latino, which is dedicated to helping Latino immigrants and their families acclimate to life in the United States. “We were already inundated with a surge of new arrivals,” said Katrina Ayala-Bermejo, the president and CEO of Instituto. “Then, the timing of this in August of last year, because of where we’re located and being a hub for immigrants and refugees, we absolutely noticed a difference in folks that were coming more regularly to our building, asking for services, asking for assistance, asking for clothes and food.”

When the unprecedented influx of migrants began arriving in Chicago last year, Instituto knew it had to adapt its strategies to meet the needs of the new arrivals, including food, rental assistance, health insurance and legal screenings. Very early on, the organization became a hub for donations. Organizers created an Amazon wishlist to manage donations. They also created the AMOR project, which stands for asylum migrant outreach response. Over 300 community members volunteer in support of this project — to distribute clothing, food and other resources.

An immigrant herself who was once undocumented, Ayala-Bermejo is proud to be leading an organization during such a critical time. She is also proud of how community members have stepped up to support new arrivals — but she also knows that providing new arrivals with resources is a short-term solution.

She envisions a plan wherein organizations like Instituto can co-sign leases for migrants to allow them to receive longer-term leases. She also hopes to see changes in federal policy that will enable new arrivals to obtain work authorization quicker. Currently, asylum seekers aren’t eligible to apply for work permits until about five months after applying for asylum. In many cases, it takes up to a year for them to gain the ability to work in the country legally.

“We really are advocating for expedited work permits. We know that that’s what our recent arrivals want more than anything. They want to work. They want the ability to do that in a safe, legal way,” she said.

Ana Gil-Garcia also thinks expedited work permits should be a priority — and that the issue impacts everyone. For instance, Gil-Garcia notes that even during the pandemic, there were many migrants who were doctors and medical professionals who were unable to help as the crisis unfolded. “We made sure that we had meetings with the American Medical Association to see if there was any solution there. We had meetings at the government level in the governor’s office to see if during the pandemic, they were considered just to help, and nothing happened,” she said.

A Venezuelan-American scholar, advocate and cofounder of the Illinois Venezuelan Alliance, she advocates for Venezuelans specifically but all immigrants, broadly. The Illinois Venezuelan Alliance has supported new arrivals by hosting clothing drives, holding information sessions that help migrants understand how to survive in America, and organizing and delivering Thanksgiving dinner for 500 people.

Amid these efforts to support migrants,some Chicago residents have expressed concerns about neighborhood safety and finding a permanent solution to the migrant crisis amid the previously existing homelessness crisis in Chicago.

Earlier this year, in an op-ed that appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times entitled, “I Am The Immigrant You Fear”, Paula Gean addressed these concerns. Like a quarter of the recent new arrivals, Gean arrived in Chicago as a minor.

Gean immigrated to the United States from Colombia at 3 years old, and Chicago was the first place her family settled. She remembers how her mom relied on family and friends for food and shelter when she arrived. Gean grew up understanding how community members had contributed to make her the person she is today. As a high school student, she began donating and volunteering to pay it forward.

Shortly after writing her op-ed, Gean founded Chicago For All. One of the group’s main goals is bridging the gap between long-term residents, who are predominantly Black, and the new arrivals who are staying in the local shelters. As part of the effort to build community, the group hosts weekly soccer and baseball games. Earlier this year, they held a banquet for shelter members and local residents that 200 people attended.

She sees the value in new arrivals, especially because she once was one. She also understands that some residents have concerns about the influx of migrants into their neighborhoods, so she has been working with local Black pastors and other community leaders to bridge that gap and build Black and Brown unity.

“Together we can do something. And sometimes it’s the smallest thing like putting together a soccer game. Sometimes it’s as big as putting together a 200-person banquet. We’ve done both of those. Really, it’s a collective of people. It’s bringing together Black and Brown people and helping foster Black and Brown relationships,” Gean said. Gean says it’s been challenging to foster these relationships, but not impossible.

Meanwhile, the Latino Policy Forum is also leading efforts to ensure that community members are updated about what’s going on and are able to build connections. In an interview with The 19th, Sylvia Puente and Nina Sedeno, the group’s president and CEO and its immigration policy analyst, talked about how the organization has been connecting people and resources through open table conversations. For eight months now, the group has been convening the Welcome to Illinois coalition.

“We curate speakers to share aspects of what’s going on to facilitate collaboration, relationships and networks, so people know what’s going on. In the beginning, it was very important, because the city would say something, the state would say something else. We’d have them both on so everyone could directly ask questions,“ Puente said.

Among the speakers who have joined these calls is Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García who represents a Chicago area district in Congress and has been a strong advocate for immigrants. Just last week, he joined a coalition of elected officials, immigration advocates and representatives from the business sector at a news conference to urge President Joe Biden to expand work permits for migrants and other new arrivals.

“We have anti-immigrant rhetoric and those who oppose immigration reform in Congress, that is why this is the only viable solution that would solve many of the challenges we are seeing in Chicago and other cities across the country. Expanding work permits is a common sense solution. It will grow our economy. It will help transform our workforce, and more importantly, it will create more wealth across the board in America,” Garcia said.

Puente notes that over 200 collaborations and partnerships have been formed as a result of these conversations, which occur virtually. They provide a quick, concise way to share resources and express needs.

As Puente notes, new arrivals are still coming and the immigration crisis is not expected to end anytime soon.

“I think our local officials are doing as much as they can — our governor and mayor. The challenge really is federal inaction. There’s an outcry, but I don’t think it’s going the way we would hope that it might spur some federal action. The president can only do so much,” Puente said.