The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

New York City and Chicago’s competing migrant crisis approaches

Lucia Preziosi
A temporary encampment sits outside the 19th District police station on Chicago’s North Side on Oct. 21, 2023. Several police stations are helping provide space for migrants and asylum-seekers, until more permanent solutions can be found.

As two of America’s largest cities take in vast numbers of newly arrived migrants every day, Chicago mayor Brandon Johnson and New York City mayor Eric Adams are taking different approaches to address the crisis.

Since spring 2022, New York has seen the arrival of more than 188,000 migrants and asylum-seekers, with that number growing by the hundreds daily. 

More than 18,500 migrants have arrived in Chicago since Aug. 2022.

Adams expressed the exasperation New York is facing, asserting in a Sept. 7 town hall meeting that he sees no end to this crisis. As New York officials attempt to find housing for migrant  families, Adams said he fears “this issue will destroy New York City.”

A condition unique to New York City is the long-standing “right to shelter agreement,” which requires the City to guarantee temporary housing for every person facing homelessness.

Similar to New York’s right to shelter, Chicago is a self-proclaimed sanctuary city, pledging to protect immigrants from federal agents. 

Supported by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, Adams drew back on this decades-long policy as the city struggles to house migrant families.

Adams announced a 60-day limit for families living in shelters on Monday, Oct. 16, calling upon them to return to an intake center and reapply for shelter every two months. 

In an interview with New York’s WABC radio, Adams said the right to shelter does not apply to a migrant crisis.

New York versus Chicago: the language of support 

Adams’ language and characterization of migrants is controversial and differs from Johnson’s approach in Chicago, according to Kathleen Arnold, the director of the Refugee and Forced Migration program at DePaul.

“What Adams is saying is completely problematic because obviously he keeps using the words ‘burden’ and saying this is an emergency, and Johnson hasn’t used that language,” Arnold said.

Johnson utilizes building coalitions and working with communities, differing from Adams’s approach, said Shailja Sharma, a professor and chair of International Studies at DePaul.

“I think the attitude of Brandon Johnson and his cabinet is very open to building coalitions and providing help – that’s a positive,” Sharma said. “What I’ve heard about New York is that’s not true.”

Adams’ choice of language, identifying migrants as a burden to the city, could also pose a direct threat to migrants, according to Arnold.

“Rhetorically, I would imagine in New York, people perceive it as a green light to be prejudicial or discriminatory to Venezuelans, whereas Brandon Johnson has not done that and I think that’s valuable,” Arnold said. 

Chicago’s Approach

High numbers of migrants arriving in Chicago has led Brandon Johnson to appoint Beatriz Ponce de León as deputy mayor of immigrant, migrant and refugee rights in July 2023.

“She has been going to different organizations and also came to DePaul to find out what DePaul could do to help and find out how they can collaborate with us,”  Sharma said.

Sharma characterizes Chicago as a sanctuary city, as Johnson continues to use language that supports migrants despite the challenges the city is facing to house and support families. 

Sanctuary designations, whether it be on a city, county or state level do not comply with ICE and do not comply with what Arnold calls “unconstitutional policing” in an interview with WBEZ

In a July 3 news release, Johnson voiced his sympathy for asylum-seekers.

“Together, we will ensure that Chicago embraces immigrants and asylum seekers, remains a safe, welcoming home to all, and that anyone seeking sanctuary in our city can have a prosperous life and future,” Johnson said. 

Johnson inherited the migrant situation from Lightfoot’s cabinet upon being elected in April, 2023.

Chicago saw its first arrival of migrants under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration in Aug. 2022 and communicated with New York and Washington, D.C., to formulate an approach to the emerging situation, according to Nubia Wilman, the director of the Office of New Americans in Lightfoot’s cabinet.

Wilman pointed out that Chicago looked at New York for guidance and preparation but adopted a different approach.

“New York had given money and deputized a larger community organization to kind of lead everything, everything was really shelter and out-migration,” Wilman said. “Here in Chicago, we wanted to have more of a holistic approach.”

New York’s focus on out-migration prioritized moving migrants from temporary shelters to more permanent conditions.

The Next Steps

Wilman emphasizes the inclusion of legal aid partners, as access to legal aid is vital to understanding one’s immigration status and next steps.

As both cities struggle to find adequate housing for the growing number of newly arrived migrants, Sharma believes that Adams did not give proper attention to the increasing crisis at its conception.

“I think the pattern in New York was that the mayor ignored the enormity of the situation for a very long time, and then basically used it as a populist gimmick to attack the migrants instead of helping them,” Sharma said. “I’m so glad Chicago is not doing that.” 

Migrants in New York reside in shuttered hotels, vacant office buildings, former jails and tented dormitories. The newest arrivals in Chicago find themselves in shelters, police stations or airports as they await placement. 

As the weather gets colder and shelters reach their limits, the cities are scrambling to erect more temporary housing. 

“Every shelter space is now filled,” Arnold said. “It is an incredibly bad situation.”

Johnson entered a $29 million contract with GardaWorld to construct winterized base camps for migrants living in police stations.

GardaWorld holds a controversial reputation, allegedly having ties to migrant labor trafficking schemes at U.S. military bases overseas, according to reports by NBC News.

GardaWorld is also allegedly one of the groups involved in the mistreatment of migrant children at the border

The inspector general for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identified insufficient training for staff at GardaWorld’s Fort Bliss military base in El Paso. 

Along with substandard living conditions, children allegedly suffered panic attacks facing long waits to see a case manager. 

Wilman said the Lightfoot administration immediately opposed the idea of tent camps.

The location of the proposed base camps also poses a problem, according to Sharma.

“The city is really struggling, it doesn’t help that the areas that have been chosen as temporary housing already have very few resources to begin with,” Sharma said.

One proposed location for a base camp is a lot at 38th Street and California Avenue in Brighton Park, between downtown and Midway Airport. 

Many Brighton Park residents are protesting this proposal, stating the city did not give enough warning and that their input was not considered. 

As the number of newly arrived migrants increases daily, Chicago has begun communicating with St. Louis nonprofit groups, unions and philanthropic leaders to possibly relocate migrants to St. Louis to reignite their workforce amid a population decline.

“The city is really struggling, it doesn’t help that the areas that have been chosen as temporary housing already have very few resources to begin with.”

— Shailja Sharma, professor and chair of International Studies at DePaul.

Solutions like these signal new ways cities can properly aid migrants, but there are solutions on the local level as well.

Sharma suggested that collection centers for donations, clothes and food established at post offices or local libraries offer a good way to get people involved. 

Ensuring access to legal support is also a vital resource for newly arrived migrants, said Wilman, Lightfoot’s former cabinet member.

As migrants continue to arrive in Chicago and New York, Wilman says city governments should formulate a concrete strategy in case federal aid does not materialize.

“I think it is really important for folks in charge to review this and think, ‘What is my plan? What is my solution if they don’t get that federal support?’” Wilman said.

She also calls upon city officials to be more transparent and communicative with Chicago residents as the crisis continues.

“Oftentimes that necessary kind of work is really dismissed to make sure folks understand what’s happening,” Wilman said.

At the same time, she said Chicagoans need to offer compassion for migrants.

“We really need fellow Chicagoans to tap into their empathy and understand what these folks are coming from.”

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