Our political leaders can do a lot more to help migrants

Without more intervention at the local, state and national levels, we will remain in a fight we cannot win to care for the busloads of asylum seekers who continue to arrive in Chicago. We are in a state of emergency.

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Volunteers speak to Katy Pernett Perez about the condition of her son, Josue Miguel, at an encampment of asylum seekers outside the District 1 police station Wednesday.

Volunteers speak to Katy Pernett Perez about the condition of her son, Josue Miguel, at an encampment of asylum seekers outside the District 1 police station Wednesday.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

As I entered the 14th District police station a few weeks ago, the air was taken from my lungs at the sight of babies and toddlers asleep on the floor with their parents and all of their belongings surrounding them.

I am the CEO of CommunityHealth, the nation’s largest volunteer-based free health center and one of many organizations providing health care to migrants staying at police precinct stations in Chicago. As I write this, there are more than 1,000 people sleeping on precinct floors as they await temporary shelter.

Some have been at precincts for a few days, while others have been there for months. There are another 6,000 people living in temporary shelters at park districts, schools and repurposed motels.

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In Chicago, like other sanctuary cities throughout the country, we are witnessing a humanitarian crisis. Over 13,000 people have been sent to Chicago from border states in the last year. Their routes to Chicago are varied after reaching the border, but all have faced difficult and often months-long journeys before arriving in a city with no shelter space available.

For months, CommunityHealth has worked alongside true heroes of Chicago who are striving around the clock to coordinate shelter, food, transportation and more. More than 90 buses have arrived in the last three months alone. This steady and constant flow of people seeking asylum makes it nearly impossible to keep up.

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The buses continue to come, sometimes without any notice or coordination from their state of origin. We did not create this humanitarian crisis, but we are responsible for it. We must continue fighting to provide dignity and respect for people who endured the unimaginable to find safety in our city.

This is why we need a change in approach from our political leaders. The path we are on, despite monumental efforts, is not enough.

Before she left office, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared a state of emergency. Mayor Brandon Johnson must lean into the emergency declaration. Doing so will reduce the red tape for emergency purchasing and movement of desperately needed funds, and it will give the city the ability to request help from the National Guard.

It will also signify to those of us on the ground that the new mayor stands with us in responding to this unprecedented crisis.

That’s only a small part of the solution, though. These asylum seekers need to be given the opportunity to begin their new lives here. We need federal intervention to allow those who have applied for asylum the immediate right to work. Currently, asylum seekers can receive a work permit 180 days after filing their asylum applications, but the process often takes longer.

The Biden administration needs to give migrants Temporary Protected Status, which will give them immediate work authorization and allow them to support themselves and their families as they navigate the complicated asylum process.

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Finally, sustained funding will be required to ensure Chicago can live up to Johnson’s sanctuary city vision. We urge the state of Illinois to identify a long-term revenue source that can fund the ongoing housing and resource needs of a rapidly growing migrant population.

Without these interventions at the local, state and national levels, we will remain in a fight we cannot win. Each day we go without these actions is another day that a bus full of asylum seekers arrives, and we have nowhere for them to go, aside from the floor of a police precinct. We must do better.

Stephanie Willding is CEO of CommunityHealth.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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