Two boys from Venezuela, 8 years old (right) and 11, whose mother requested that their names not be published, eating donated food while sitting on the floor at the Eighth District police station in Chicago Lawn. It’s among Chicago police stations where asylum-seekers have been temporarily sleeping while they wait for shelter.

Two boys from Venezuela, 11 years old (from left) and 8, eat donated food while sitting on the floor of the Chicago Lawn District police station. Their mother requested that their names not be published.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Chicagoans try to help as ‘welcoming city of immigrants’ faces a space crunch for asylum-seekers

Erika Villegas, who lives in Garfield Ridge, is among Chicagoans who have taken it upon themselves to visit police stations to help newly arrived immigrants. They want “the city to step up” more.

Yeraldin Centeno, entering her sixth day living in the lobby of the Chicago Lawn District police station, relies on the generosity of strangers for her basic needs.

Centeno, 28, a native of Venezuela, arrived in Chicago in late April with her husband and their two children. They knew nothing about the city.

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Centeno sold her home in Venezuela to begin a journey that ended up taking about six months, with stops in Costa Rica, to try to raise more money to continue the trek to the United States.

She wanted to go to Washington, D.C., where a relative had resettled. But shelters there were full.

After a night at O’Hare Airport, her family was taken by bus to the Chicago Lawn police station on the Southwest Side. That’s where they met Erika Villegas, who has been bringing the family meals, snacks, and when needed, over-the-counter medicines.

“We have Ms. Erika,” Centeno said in Spanish. “She is supporting us with food, clothes, medicine — everything.”

Yeraldin Centeno, 28, a migrant from Venezuela who was staying at the Chicago Lawn police station with her kids.

Yeraldin Centeno, 28, is an immigrant from Venezuela who was staying at the Chicago Lawn police station with her kids.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Villegas, who lives in Garfield Ridge, is among Chicagoans who have taken it upon themselves to make daily visits to police stations to check on newly arrived immigrants.

It’s one of the ways in which people and groups around the city have stepped up as the city struggles to provide shelter for asylum-seekers.

Earlier this year, when Chicago saw another surge of immigrants, community groups and volunteers opened their homes to them as the demand for shelter beds increased.

Since last August, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began busing asylum-seekers at the country’s southern border out of his state, more than 8,000 immigrants have arrived in Chicago amid a new surge in recent weeks.

That comes as Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said City Hall has reached “a breaking point” — out of money, time and space to accommodate them.

The city of Chicago is in line to get $4.3 million in federal funding to help. But that’s far less than the $38.9 million to $66.7 million the Lightfoot administration requested from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s emergency food and shelter program.

Villegas and others offering help have asked city officials to provide two meals a day, shower facilities and medical care to those now staying at police stations while they wait for shelter space to become available.

“We just want the city to step up,” said Villegas, 41. “We are a welcoming city of immigrants. I know my grandparents came to this country 45 years ago, and that’s why I’m doing this because someone along the way helped them.”

Erika Villegas, who has been providing food and supplies to new arrivals, speaks with a young migrant outside the Eighth District police station in Chicago Lawn. It’s among the police stations in Chicago where asylum-seekers have been sleeping while they wait for shelter.

Erika Villegas, who has been providing food and supplies to new immigrants, speaks with a young immigrant outside the Chicago Lawn police station.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

The Greater Chicago Food Depository has begun delivering produce, snacks, water and toiletries to police stations.

“We believe food is a basic human right and everyone — regardless of when they arrived in our community or their immigration status — deserves to eat,” said Man-Yee Lee, a spokeswoman for the charitable organization.

In less than a week, the Chicago group Organized Communities Against Deportations raised $9,000 to provide cash assistance to new immigrants, according to Antonio Gutierrez, its strategic coordinator. The program is modeled after a cash-assistance program it created early in the pandemic. Newly arrived immigrants can apply for $300 that can be used for anything, and Gutierrez said families can apply more than once, though priority will be given to new families to try to help as many people as possible. So far, two families have gotten money through the program. Gutierrez said the group plans to continue distributing money and to help immigrants find other resources.

“So really it’s like community coming together to address this issue that we are all facing and trying to make sure that these families have the ability to have some mobility in regards to being able to find housing, stable places to live and be with their families,” Gutierrez said. “And hopefully get them out of the shelters as soon as we can.”

Many of the newly arrived immigrants could end up facing deportation proceedings, Gutierrez said.

Villegas and others have used their own money to buy food and medicine for them. Villegas said she raised about $850 from family and friends that was quickly spent on meals for those living in the police stations.

Heather Kofke-Egger, who lives in Logan Square, has delivered meals and other necessities to the new arrivals since mid-April and estimates she’s spent hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars.

“People don’t want to look away,” Kofke-Egger said. “They don’t want to see children go hungry. They don’t want to see their new neighbors sleeping on the floor of police stations in these really difficult conditions.”

With more people now sleeping in police stations, Kofke-Egger said the last few weeks have been like running a small government in the absence of a city response.

“We need a city response that is comprehensive and addresses both the needs as people are waiting for shelter and the needs as people transition into the shelter system,” she said. “Counting on volunteers to do this work is just not appropriate.”

She said those now living at the police stations have little choice but to call 911 if they need medical attention. Volunteers have purchased over-the-counter medications, but they are unsure where to turn if a fever, cough or pain persists, Kofke-Egger said.

Dr. Brittani James, medical director for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, said the organization started dispatching a mobile health unit to police stations this month after a worker raised concerns about the health of the new arrivals.

“I know that this is not a new crisis, but it seems to me that there’s some sort of tipping point that we have entered in which now truly, truly the capacity to respond is not there from the city,” James said.

Dr. Brittani James, medical director at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, who has been treating migrants.

Dr. Brittani James, medical director at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, has been treating immigrants.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

James said her organization has seen signs of delayed care for people who are sick, some showing signs of dehydration, which could become a serious issue for children, and others, pregnant, who aren’t getting enough food.

“The problem with police stations is, obviously, they’re not health care people,” James said. “How would they even recognize when someone’s in crisis? It’s just a concerning mixture, a perfect setup for poor health outcomes.”

The increase in immigration in Chicago comes as the United States ends Title 42, a federal health law that had been used during the pandemic by border officials to quickly expel immigrants. Some worry there could be a rise in immigration.

Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, said it’s a moment immigration advocates have been waiting for. McCarthy said there could be an increase still to come in immigration because people have waited three years to apply for asylum.

“We have an obligation under domestic and international law to allow people to apply for asylum,” said McCarthy, who planned to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border. “What’s really going to be critical given the complexity of the law — and that’s just increased over the years — is that people have access to lawyers in that process, which will determine whether they meet the requirements to stay here.”

Immigrants in the lobby of the Chicago Lawn police station, where immigrant asylum-seekers have been sleeping while they wait for shelter space to become available.

Immigrants in the lobby of the Chicago Lawn police station, where immigrant asylum-seekers have been sleeping while they wait for shelter to become available.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

How to help migrants coming to Chicago

How to help immigrants coming to Chicago


New immigrants in Chicago need basic necessities, the city says. Here is a list of recommended actions from organizations, community groups and legislators in Chicago offering aid:
  • Find out how to support the city’s official partnership with churches — the Unity Initiative — at its website, or support the Faith Community Initiative, an independent effort, at its website.
  • The Chicago Furniture Bank is helping furnish their homes. Request a furniture pickup at its website, or donate items to its warehouse at 4801 S. Whipple St. in Brighton Park.
  • New Life Centers, the nonprofit arm of the network of local churches, has taken the lead in welcoming migrants at the city’s designated site for bus arrivals, along with city staff. To donate to that effort, as well as support their other efforts, visit the Nuevos Vecinos section of its website.
  • Instituto del Progreso Latino has an Amazon wishlist from which people can purchase items, and Cradles to Crayons has a wishlist and a list of locations where items can be dropped off, as does One Warm Coat.
  • Find volunteering opportunities on Chi Welcome, a Facebook page dedicated to helping migrants around Chicago; Neighbors Helping Our New Neighbors, a South Side specific group; and Refugee Community Connection, which is aimed at helping the refugee community more broadly.

Find more information here.

If you are an organization offering assistance to immigrants and would like to be added to this list, contact tips@suntimes.com.

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