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The DePaulia

The Student News Site of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student News Site of DePaul University

The DePaulia

‘A perfect storm’: Migrants face legal barriers, paused services and a 60-day limit at shelters as the city’s budget rapidly dwindles

Lucia Preziosi
File – A temporary encampment sits outside the 19th District police station on Chicago’s North Side on Oct. 21, 2023. Police stations have been housing migrants as the government continues to find permanent solutions.

The city’s shelter system is overflowing as officials from Southern border states like Texas continue to send migrants and asylum seekers to Chicago. With limited funding, Mayor Brandon Johnson has paused the city’s shelter expansion as he calls for Gov. J.B. Pritzker to open the 2,000 beds the state promised in November.

More than 800 buses have arrived in the city since August 2022, bringing over 35,000 new arrivals, according to city data. About 13,000 migrants are currently staying across Chicago’s 28 shelters, but the demand for more space has put pressure on city and state officials to find solutions.

The city budgeted $150 million for services for migrants and asylum seekers in 2024, but spends $1.5 million on those services every day, Johnson said in a Jan. 24 press conference, where he explained the city’s latest iteration of its mission to support Chicago’s growing population of asylum seekers.

“There are some limitations to what we can do,” Johnson said at the press conference. 

To make space for the city’s newest arrivals, Johnson first announced a 60-day shelter stay limit for migrants Nov. 17, which he has since postponed.

The first wave of evictions was originally set to take effect Jan. 16, but inclement weather and pressure from city council members and advocates pushed Johnson to suspend the policy, now for a third time. 

Over a dozen aldermen drafted a letter to the mayor in January, warning Johnson that evictions would make resettlement more difficult for migrants who would be left without options for housing or shelter once they reach their stay limits, according to a WBEZ report

Johnson defended the policy at the Jan. 24 press conference, citing similar policies enacted in major cities like Denver and New York.

Between Jan. 16 and Feb. 29, 5,700 people would have had to leave city shelters. They now have an additional 60 days. Those who face eviction between March 1 and March 28, about 2,100 people, have been granted a 30-day extension, Brandie Knazze, commissioner of the Department of Family and Support, said at the Jan. 24 press conference.

Once they reach their stay limit, people who still need housing will have to reapply for shelter at the city’s landing zone where buses arrive and new arrivals first make contact with service providers, Knazze said at the press conference.

“Our plan for temporary emergency shelter was never meant as a long-term housing solution,” Johnson said at the same press conference.

Breandán Magee, senior director of programs for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), said his organization is concerned about the city’s shelter stay policy. 

Magee told a panel on forced migration hosted at DePaul on Jan. 30 that a lack of preparedness for shelter evictions could lead to “a perfect storm of folks who are completely unprepared to be evicted from the city system.”

Our plan for temporary emergency shelter was never meant as a long-term housing solution.”

— Mayor Brandon Johnson, Jan. 24 press conference

The ICIRR is responsible for directing city and state funds to service providers, according to Magee, and is one of the groups that advocated for Chicago’s sanctuary city status, which protects migrants from inquiries about their immigration status and prevents them from being denied services regardless of their documentation.

“A lot of people heard that call and they came,” he said. “But when they got here not but a couple of months ago, we found that the shelters were overflowing.”

In addition to shelter limits, the state has also cut back on a rental assistance program that offered migrants state funding to help them pay rent. Migrants initially received six months of rental assistance, but now the program only covers three.

Without a job, employment authorization, rental assistance, and often without the public benefits like health care and legal assistance, those set to leave shelters during the first wave of evictions would be at serious risk, according to Magee.

Magee said that only about 10% of the migrants who come receive eligibility to go forward with employment authorization, which would allow them to work legally in the U.S. The same goes for migrants applying for asylum, which protects undocumented people from being deported if they can prove that they will face persecution or harm if they are sent home.

The state of Illinois gave the city $160 million in November to support the city’s resettlement plan.

Part of this funding was initially meant to help the city build a winterized base camp for migrants in the Brighton Park neighborhood, which would have opened an additional 2,000 beds.

However, the plans ultimately fell through after the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) found that the land was contaminated and not fit for construction.

The latest city-run shelter opened Nov. 18 in an office complex on Elston Avenue. The city has not opened any shelters since then, although a state-funded shelter at a CVS in Little Village opened on Jan. 11.

Johnson is still calling on Pritzker to open the 2,000 beds the state promised to build in November.

“The state of Illinois is committed to building new shelters,” Johnson said. “There are a number of locations in which those shelters can be built.”

Pritzker, who is “deeply concerned” that Johnson has paused shelter expansion, says the state is willing to do its part, but the city has yet to tell him where to direct resources, according to a report from the Chicago Tribune.

With the city set to exhaust its funds soon, both Johnson and Pritzker are looking to the federal government for more support.

Magee at the ICIRR said the real crisis is the federal government’s failure to step up and provide assistance.

“Unfortunately, that would require a bill of Congress, and funding for Ukraine and Israel funding as well as the border security provisions, (that’s) all tied together right now and it’s quite a mess,” Magee said. “Within that are some of the provisions that would go to some of the sanctuary cities, including Chicago.”

Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott keeps sending buses without telling passengers where they are headed.

Rob Paral, a demographic and public policy consultant at Rob Paral & Associates, said he visited the site at the Texas border where the buses are stationed.

“How much property do they have in their hands?” Paral asked guests at the panel on forced migration hosted at DePaul.“That’s what they’ve got,” he said in reference to a photo of people stepping onto buses at the border.

Elizabeth Kennedy, a country conditions expert and social scientist who also spoke at the panel, said some people underestimate how aware migrants are of the risks associated with their journey. “They know that they are risking their lives, but it is with the chance that they might have a better life,” she said.

“They want to be someone, they want to dream, and we do have these rights.”

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