Black Chicago, let’s check our attitudes on migrants

I cringe when I hear Black folks spew anti-immigrant rhetoric. We know what it’s like to be “otherized” and accused of taking something away from another group.

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Migrants take shelter inside a waiting area for shuttles near O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 2, Oct. 3, 2023. Almost 700 asylum seekers, most sent from Texas, are currently sheltered in the airport, according to the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

Migrants take shelter inside a waiting area for shuttles near O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 2, Oct. 3, 2023. Almost 700 asylum seekers from Texas and other states are currently sheltered in the airport, according to the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The adage “We’re a nation of immigrants” rings hollow for many Black Americans. For those of us descended from enslaved people, the sentiment feels like erasure of our ancestors who forcibly labored on plantations. Immigration is foundational to the U.S., yes. So was slavery.

But that fact doesn’t justify anti-immigrant behavior, which is rising as Chicago’s migrant humanitarian crisis shows no signs of slowing down or reaching a permanent solution.

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is using red politics to tarnish a blue city. He vows to keep relocating migrants on buses to Democratic-run cities. Soon, the crisp fall air will transition to a brutal winter hawk for migrants who will experience their first snowfall in the Windy City. The cost to Chicago could top $255.7 million by year’s end, side-tracking Mayor Brandon’s Johnson agenda to focus on helping marginalized communities.

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For some Black residents on the South and West Side, money and other government resources should not go to the newcomers. Over the past year, some folks have flocked to community meetings to yell “send them back” when the city proposes housing migrants in a shuttered school in Woodlawn or a hotel in Kenwood.

Neighbors feel that reversing the legacy of racist policies and disinvestment in Black neighborhoods should be the immediate priority, not tending to the flow of Venezuelans who left their politically unstable country in a harrowing trek across continents for a better life here. Some Black City Council members are even calling for a repeal of the 1985 sanctuary city status issued by Harold Washington, the city’s first Black mayor.

I’ve heard takes like “Immigration harms Black Chicago” or “The migrants are getting more benefits than the rest of us.” Living in a closed school, or perhaps in a so-called “winterized base camp” hardly sounds like living in the lap of luxury. Nor does sleeping on cold floors at O’Hare Airport or in tents outside police stations.

Asking for solidarity with strangers is a heavy lift when inequities in housing and job access are ever-present. I also understand that sometimes immigrants with the same skin color adopt anti-Blackness once they settle into the U.S. But I cringe when I hear Black folks spew anti-immigrant rhetoric. We know what it’s like to be “otherized” and accused of taking something away from another group. A scarcity mindset pits Black and Brown communities against each other. No one wins. Resources for everyone should be the clarion call.

Migrants in our own land

Generations of Black Chicagoans do know what it’s like to be a migrant within our own country. After World War I until 1970, millions of Black Southerners fled from economic and racial violence and settled in northern cities like Chicago. They met resistance in the workplace and neighborhoods. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful force here and across the nation. Their white supremacy was not only anti-Black but antisemitic, anti-Catholic and anti-anything-not-deemed-real-American — meaning white and Protestant.

But just like America, Chicago has historically celebrated immigration and wrapped its arms around global refugees. And just like America, Chicago has over the decades also exhibited nativism and xenophobia toward Chinese and Mexican immigrants, for example. Meanwhile, Poles, Italians and Lithuanians arrived in Chicago as “others’’ before adopting a white ethnic identity.

Chicago is at an impasse. Without significant federal intervention, few viable solutions are on the horizon to ease the migrant crisis. It’s a global issue, in some ways tied to U.S. foreign policy, and will likely remain a top issue here for the duration of Johnson’s administration.

Finding solutions will take a lot of courage, empathy, mettle and grace. We must ask ourselves about common ground as we ruminate on what our moral obligation is toward migrants who step off buses to Sweet Home Chicago.

Another adage comes to mind. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks once wrote, “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ and writes a column for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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