Outgoing mayor Lori Lightfoot made headlines Sunday when she penned an open letter to Texas governor Greg Abbott, asking him to stop sending refugees on buses to Chicago. In the letter, Lightfoot appeals to Abbot to “stop this inhumane and dangerous action.” She goes on to say that “we simply have no more shelters, spaces, or resources to accommodate an increase of individuals at this level.”
Of course, Abbott simply doesn’t care about the well-being of the human beings he’s been sending to Chicago. As alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez correctly points out, “This is a political fight, and [Abbott] is using migrants, these refugees, as pawns, and it shouldn’t be like that.”
Echoing Trump, Abbott’s racist argument is that refugees and immigrants from Latin America are a scourge and that they should be forcibly prevented from entering the United States. He is therefore treating thousands of people—including, as Lightfoot points out, pregnant women and sick children—as if they were freight, shipping them to so-called sanctuary cities like Chicago as a political stunt. Abbott’s wager is that his stunt will anger Democratic officials in those cities and confirm his view that immigration from Latin America is a bad thing that ought to be stopped.
By responding as she has, Lightfoot has played right into Abbott’s hands.
To her claim that sending refugees to Chicago is “inhumane and dangerous,” Abbott can respond “yes, that’s right—and that’s why we need to stop people from crossing the border in the first place.” To her complaint that “we simply have no more shelters, spaces, or resources to accommodate an increase of individuals at this level,” he can reply in the exact same fashion and try to say that the state of Texas also lacks the shelter spaces and resources.
No matter whether it’s Abbott or Lightfoot, this appeal to scarcity is illegitimate. There is plenty of physical space, plenty of housing stock, and plenty of material resources to meet all of the needs of those seeking refuge. Lest we forget: the United States is the richest country in the history of the world, and Chicago, in particular, is the richest city in the fifth-richest state in that country.
In the case of housing stock, there is more than enough to go around. As is typical under capitalism, there remains a large glut of empty properties on the market. The owners of those properties, who themselves already have a place to live, find it more profitable to wait and speculate than to permit homes to be used by those who need one. On top of this, office vacancy rates in the loop hit all-time highs in January. Lightfoot is simply wrong: there’s more than enough space to house people in need of shelter.
There are news reports circulating that refugees are being kept in police stations in miserable conditions. According to the Sun-Times, people are being forced to sleep on cold floors and are being fed food “rations,” which, in at least some cases, expired in 2020.
That is outrageous. Why is the city warehousing refugees in police stations, as if they were criminals? Why aren’t more resources being dedicated to ensuring that all people—refugees as well as longtime Chicagoans—have wholesome, fresh, nutritious food to eat? As with housing stock, there is never too little to go around—physical scarcity is a non-issue. Indeed, an enormous amount of food goes to waste in big cities like Chicago every single day. (To this we could add that US capitalism regards it as “normal” to destroy millions of pounds of fresh food whenever prices drop low enough to threaten corporate profits.)
Of course, Lightfoot has a point that it’s unfair to expect the municipal government of Chicago all by itself to be on the hook for solving what is, in fact, a national or even international problem. She’d be correct to say that the federal government should be doing a lot more to make sure refugees are cared for and have safe, secure housing. Here it would’ve been good to directly criticize the Biden Administration, which has been taking an increasingly right-wing, Trump-esque stance on immigration.
But the fact remains that Chicago is nowhere near physical carrying capacity. There’s plenty of room here—indeed, let’s not forget that this is a city where “population loss” is regularly cited as a cause for concern! We could use more people. And there’s more than enough in terms of material resources. To say that it’s better to keep housing empty than permit it to be used by those who lack shelter is to say that profits for speculators are more valuable than human lives. That is, in effect, what Lightfoot implies when she appeals to scarcity and pleads with Abbott to stop busing refugees to Chicago.