Welcoming asylum seekers is what Illinois should be about

When Ukrainian and Afghan refugees came to the Chicago area, they were welcomed. These new asylum seekers are also fleeing violence, conflict and persecution, but the treatment they’ve received from some who call themselves leaders could not be more disparate.

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Asylum seekers share food as they load onto a bus to take them to a refugee center outside Union Station in Chicago on Aug. 31.

Asylum seekers share food as they load onto a bus to take them to a refugee center outside Union Station in Chicago on Aug. 31.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

For me, home means Burr Ridge. I love my village; it is a friendly and culturally diverse community. We moved here almost 20 years ago to be part of the community and build a better future for my family and for my neighbors.

I cannot imagine how it would feel if my home turned on me, and this once-safe place became the site of persecution or violence. To be torn from the place you’ve made your home is deeply traumatic, yet it is the shadow that many of the recent immigrants to Illinois by way of Texas are living under as they search for a safe place to land.

I’m so glad that despite the circumstances, they’ve made it here, because there is no place that does hospitality and service like Illinois.

As the chairman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, I know firsthand the power that comes from people working together across public and private organizations to help those in need. Our work to make an equitable and accessible education system for everyone in the state speaks to our core Illinois values, the same values that are needed now as we welcome these newcomers to our state.

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By and by large, Illinoisans have gone above and beyond demonstrating that promise of generosity and hospitality in recent weeks.Inturn, these newcomers will help Illinois continue to thrive.

I had the privilege of visiting one of the hotels where these new arrivals are staying. What I saw was a model of efficiency and empathy, as city of Chicago and state of Illinois staff worked around the clock to ensure people were given safe housing, food to eat, necessary medical care and the reassurance and direction needed to get to their final destination.

Children ran around and swam, playing happily instead of being trapped on a bus for another journey to nowhere. Parents expressed their gratitude despite language barriers and emphasized they were eager to get to work and contribute to their new communities.

Many Illinoisans and many residents of Burr Ridge have reached out with financial support and donations of supplies desperately needed to give these people a safe and comfortable place to sleep and figure out their next steps. I’m blown away by the kindness of everyday people, but I am not surprised. Illinois has always been a place where most people’s first instinct is to give before they take.

When Ukrainian refugees fled the Russian invasion earlier this year, Chicago and its neighbors welcomed them. When Afghan refugees came to the Chicago area last year, including to Burr Ridge, they were likewise welcomed with open arms.

These new asylum seekers are also fleeing violence, conflict and persecution, but the treatment they’ve received from some who call themselves leaders could not be more disparate.

This is not the community that I know and love. Taking potshots for media attention that threaten the safety of people who have been through so much does not reflect the values of the people I know.

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The last thing we want is to direct more vitriol and discrimination at people who have been through so much. There is so much work that needs to be done in our community and beyond. I cannot imagine painting targets on innocent families’ backs instead of doing the work that needs to be done.

Every person who rushes to a hotel to film or protest because of fear mongering is taking Illinois a step away from our shared values and goals. When Gov. J.B. Pritzker called on me to lead the IBHE board, I was thrilled to accept because I believe that making one’s community stronger is a moral imperative.

These asylum-seekers share that belief and are eager to help make our state even stronger with their hard work. Who wouldn’t want to employ the kind of worker with the grit towalk from Venezuela to the Texas border, carrying babies and grandparents seeking a better life?

I’m proud that Illinois and Burr Ridge are places these people can finally feel some safety and relief after weeks or months of difficult travel and an uprooting of everything they’ve ever known. I’m proud to live in a state where these people were welcomed whole heartedly despite the lack of advance notice or resources provided by those who sent them.

I’m proud to be an Illinoisan, and I know someday our newest arrivals will say the same.

John Atkinson is chairman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

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