Citing his immigrant grandfather’s frightening flight from the pogroms of Eastern Europe, Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday defended his decision to open the city’s arms to 1,000 unaccompanied immigrant children fleeing violence in Central America.
Some have suggested that the humanitarian effort funded by the federal government is a diversion and that Emanuel should concentrate all of his efforts on protecting Chicago’s children from the gang violence that has claimed far too many innocent victims.
But the mayor argued Wednesday that a city of big shoulders with an even bigger heart can walk and chew gum at the same time. In other words, Chicago can do both.
“This speaks to the values of a city. I reject the notion that it’s either-or,” the mayor said, pointing to his plans for more summer jobs, full-day kindergarten and a longer school day and year.
“You have a thousand kids fleeing violence in Central America. This speaks to who we are as a city in welcoming them,” he said.
“My grandfather left Moldova in Eastern Europe. His parents put him on a boat to get away from the pogroms [and] leave the violence. Thirteen-years-old by himself. Not a word of English to come to a place called Chicago. He left the violence of Eastern Europe.”
The mayor added, “These kids are leaving violence. There are 1,000 kids. We are not only a city of big shoulders. We’re a city of big hearts, and we welcome them and get ‘em on their way. And we will also make sure that the city of Chicago has universal pre-K, universal kindergarten, expanding after-school programs, expanding summer jobs, because the test and measure of this city is how we treat our children.”
Emanuel said when he met with the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. to discuss the humanitarian effort, Jackson “made a point that I had not thought of: when [then President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt turned away the St. Louis and sent the Jewish kids back to Nazi, Germany.”
Earlier this month, the Obama administration approached Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff, about the possibility of housing 1,000 immigrant children in Chicago facilities bankrolled by the federal government, complete with federally-funded security and support services.
City Hall responded by consulting with social service organizations that already house and care for migrant children. The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago has asked for federal authority to join the humanitarian effort.
The Emanuel administration has also asked Chicago law firms to donate their services.