Chicago welcomes immigrants bused out of Texas with open arms

Nearly 80 people seeking asylum at the U.S. southern border were sent to Chicago by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott as part of his plan to move them to Democrat-led cities; Blasting Abbott’s actions as racist, xenophobic, Lightfoot said, “We’re ready. We are the village.”

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Immigrants wait for a bus to take them to a refugee center outside Union Station in Chicago on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. Migrants from Venezuela were transported from Texas and dropped off at Union Station.

Cataleya sits on the shoulders of her father, Elier, who’s speaking to a police officer while other migrants wait outside Union Station for a bus to take them to a refugee center Wednesday night. They were among the 79 migrants bused from Texas and dropped off at Union Station.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday promised to help the city’s new “neighbors” gain stability by providing resources to the dozens of Venezuelans who arrived Wednesday after being sent on buses chartered by Texas officials.

“While there’s no way that we can fully make up for the cruelty that our new neighbors have experienced, what we have and will continue to do is welcome them with open arms,” Lightfoot said during a news conference. “I refuse to turn our backs on them at a time when they need support the most.”

The 79 immigrants, which include individuals seeking asylum, were greeted in Chicago with food, fresh clothes and a place to take a hot shower, Lightfoot said. Still, the immigration status and future of many of the individuals seemed unclear. Many plan to reunite with friends or family in other parts of the country, while some will remain in shelters in Chicago, city officials said.

The 79 people who arrived included seven infants, five other children and eight “youths,” according to information provided by City Hall on a Thursday afternoon call with those assisting the efforts.

There will likely be more buses of immigrants arriving in Chicago from Texas, officials said on the call. In addition to the 79 who arrived by bus at Union Station, 16 immigrants — four families — flew into O’Hare and received assistance from a nonprofit group.

City agencies and community organizations spent Thursday getting more information from the immigrants to see what services they needed.

Brandi Knazze, commissioner of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, said they helped individuals connect with relatives in Chicago or in other parts of the country. Those who want to stay in Chicago will continue to stay at a shelter, she said.

“For folks that decide that Chicago is going to become their home, we’ll work with them to decide what does that look like for finding employment,” she said. “And in terms of housing, we’ll work with them to see about their jobs and resources to get them connected.”

At a shelter in Humboldt Park on Thursday afternoon, rows of tables were set up in a hallway to accommodate more than a dozen men who had arrived from Venezuela. Some ate food while others played games together.

The group bused to Chicago is part of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to send people arriving at the southern border into Democrat-led cities. Under Abbott, a Republican, Texas has spent $12 million to send migrants from Texas to East Coast cities, according to the Texas Tribune.

In July, the Texas Tribune and ProPublica reported the Justice Department was investigating Abbott’s border initiatives for possible civil rights violations.

Immigrants from Venezuela eat fast food on a bus outside Union Station in August after arriving from Texas.

Some immigrants from Venezuela eat fast food on a bus outside Union Station on Wednesday night after arriving from Texas.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Lightfoot described Abbott’s actions as racist, xenophobic and unpatriotic during a news conference Thursday at the Salvation Army, which is providing shelter for some of the immigrants. She later added that Abbott is attempting to manufacture a crisis by sending immigrants by buses to other cities.

“It is my prayer, literally, that this man finds some humanity and doesn’t do it, but surely he’ll continue to do what he seems determined to do,” Lightfoot said. “We’re ready. We are the village. We are going to make sure that whoever comes to Chicago, that we are going to take care of them, that they are going to find shelter and that they will be welcomed and we will do whatever it takes to make sure that their rights are respected.”

U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Ill., said Texas officials promised the immigrants — all from Venezuela — they would have access to lawyers, housing and other forms of assistance to lure them onto the bus. When they arrived Wednesday, they told officials they had not eaten all day, he said.

“We need to ask the question of whether Gov. Abbott may be involved in trafficking of migrants for political gain,” García said.

He said he will be asking President Joe Biden’s administration to extend the designation of temporary protected status to allow the newly arrived Venezuelans to remain lawfully in the U.S. In July, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security extended the designation — which allows an immigrant to live and work lawfully for a temporary period of time — for 18 months. However, Venezuelans are eligible for the status only if they were in the United States as of March 8, 2021.

Temporary protected status is typically granted to people from a certain country because of an ongoing conflict, an environmental disaster or other conditions, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“This will be similar to what we did for Syrian and Ukrainian refugees,” he said. “There’s also a long backlog of court dates for asylum seekers, so that is another barrier that they would be facing.”

The National Immigrant Justice Center spent Thursday trying to help the individuals figure out their immigration status and how they can seek legal help, said Alejandra Oliva, the community engagement manger. 

Many had paperwork indicating when they had to check in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Oliva said they were advising people to check in with the local ICE office as soon as they arrive at their final destination. 

Some of the people in the group had just arrived in the United States this week, she said. 

“People were really tired, and people had a really long couple of days,” Oliva said. “Just being able to sit down somewhere and ask people questions was a huge relief to most of them.” 

Many of the immigrants had traveled for 30 to 40 days until reaching the U.S.-Mexico border.

Eréndira Rendón, from Chicago-based Resurrection Project, which provides assistance to immigrants, said the agency learned about two weeks ago Texas could start sending migrants to Chicago. It got a 24-hour notice about the arriving group from a nonprofit organization in Texas, she said.

She said the Resurrection Project is among the organizations trying to help those who arrived Wednesday.

“Immigrants are being welcomed — for many of them, given their first meal,” Rendón said. “Chicago will continue to be a welcoming city, and we really need to fix our federal immigration system to make sure folks can seek asylum and have family reunification.”

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said it’s “tragic” that immigrants are once again being “bused around across the country” and “used and misused for political agendas.”

All the more reason Chicago must go “beyond platitudes” and live up to its claims of being a welcoming city by providing a safety net for those refugees who choose to make their homes in Chicago, he said.

“Employment opportunities. Housing opportunities. Providing not only space, but providing the critical safety nets so that every human being is welcome and has dignified conditions to work and live in the city of Chicago,” Sigcho-Lopez said.

“For every bus of immigrants and refugees that are coming to the city of Chicago, we should be welcoming every single immigrant and providing them with resources so that they can restart their lives in their new city,” he said. “I also think that the city of Chicago ought to invest in immigrant communities. … Investment and opportunities, like Invest South/West, have not reached immigrant communities like ours in the levels that we need to see. … There is federal funding. We need to see this funding coming to our immigrant neighborhoods that are still starving for resources.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) was the driving force behind the most recent changes that strengthened Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance. He said he’s happy that the city is setting up a receiving center and working with the Resurrection Project and volunteers to “greet people and begin connecting them with resources, housing and employment.”

But if Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Human Services is offering to help Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot should take it, Ramirez-Rosa said.

“They have a dedicated team of caseworkers. They have the immigrant welcoming centers. They have expertise and staff that are ready to help process people,” the alderperson said.

“For some individuals, Chicago will not be their last stop. Some of these immigrants are looking to connect with family in Minneapolis, in cities in Indiana, all throughout the Midwest. If they need help getting there, we should help cover their bus, their plane, their train tickets so they could reunite with family.”

Lightfoot said she did not yet know how much it will cost the city to provide services for the immigrants who arrived Wednesday or who may later arrive. She later joked that she would not turn down assistance from the state.

“We never say no to money,” Lightfoot said.

If any of the immigrants establish local residency, City Clerk Anna Valencia said she plans to reach out to them and help them apply for the CityKey municipal ID she championed.

That could open all kinds of doors and ease what will undoubtedly be a difficult transition, the clerk said.

“It allows them to register their kids in CPS schools. It allows them to try to start building a normal life here in Chicago. Once you have a government ID, it’s also a library card. They can use the internet and their computers to look for jobs. They can sign up for any city programs they need for their kids. They can use it when attempting housing. It’s a CTA transit card. If they need to go Walgreens or CVS to get a prescription, they can get a discount with the card,” the clerk said.

“You need a government ID to get into a lot of buildings here in Chicago as well. … They can even get access to banking to set up an account. That CityKey card helps access a lot of things,” she said. “We will be working with our community organizations and partners that we typically do, and we’ll definitely be helping them get their documentation — whatever they need — to get them their CityKey. And it’s free, too. No one has to pay for it. So, it’s very accessible to communities such as those refugees coming in.”

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

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, discussing recent immigrant arrivals during a news conference at the Salvation Army, Chicago Metropolitan Division, 5040 N. Pulaski Rd. on Sept. 1, 2001.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot discusses recent immigrant arrivals Thursday during a news conference at the Salvation Army, Chicago Metropolitan Division, 5040 N. Pulaski Rd.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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