On a Tuesday evening in May, Rogers Park Food Not Bombs, a grassroots mutual aid organization, gathered to share a meal with recently arrived asylum seekers who shelter at Leone Beach Fieldhouse in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. Together, dozens of organizers and families who have rarely received hot meals from the shelter circled a busy grill, passed a soccer ball around, and, as it turned out, huddled together against a punishing wind, under an eerily neon sun. A yellow school bus lurched almost inconspicuously into the crowded parking lot. When its doors slid open, more families climbed down its steps, each setting foot farther from home than they’d likely ever been.
Weeks later, Halle Quezada, a volunteer with the Police Station Response Team, woke her young children, who helped gather blankets and snacks for families who faced sleeping their first night on the floor of a police station. At a press conference in July, Quezada described the exhaustion stemming from scrambling to respond to unpredictable needs without notice or coordination.
Quezada emphasized that the presence of new people in her community was “not the burden.” However, the reluctance of city institutions to assume responsibility for the emergency of rapidly accumulating human needs (and the resulting lack of communication and respect toward the community members doing everything they can to provide care) was taking a serious toll.
Since August 22, 2022, Texas’s racist governor Greg Abbott has directed authorities to conduct what many have argued constitutes kidnapping. ICE has transported more than 12,000 people to Chicago. Most have risked everything to travel thousands of miles to claim their internationally recognized right to asylum—permanent legal permission to live and work in the United States.
For almost a year, immigration authorities in a city that claims to be a “sanctuary city” have compelled survivors of the journey to—as well as across—the United States to rely on police stations to place a roof over their heads and maintain any hope of access to social services.
Chicagoans have witnessed a full spectrum of reactions to their new neighbors, from profound solidarity to protest. These reactions, as well as the horrific conditions asylum seekers endure, share a common source: the hollowing out Chicago has experienced under decades of neoliberalism. Forcing migrants to shelter in police stations should be a cruel metaphor for a society which has abandoned care, not a day-to-day reality all over this city. Still, despite the ongoing passivity—as well as active harm—of the city’s response, organizers and neighbors have endeavored to put forward a different vision.
Care, Not Cops!
According to numerous reports, Chicago cops have abused asylum seekers with the cruelty that can only be expected from the group that has elected far-right provocateur John Catanzara as the president of their fraternal order twice.
Despite having had nearly a year to secure and distribute basic survival supplies, police stations still do not have blankets, food, or hygiene items on hand to offer asylum seekers. All this is left to volunteers. When organizers asked the city to simply take over delivering daily meals that were being prepared and donated by local restaurants to the people being held at police stations, the city tried it for a week, then gave up amid reports that in some cases officials delivered the meals to the cops themselves.
Worse, police sometimes keep the lights on all night (calling to mind the torture tactic of sleep deprivation normalized in US prisons and military installations). In the morning, the first cops on shift may kick people awake or tell them that if it’s their day to win the lottery and get a surprise visit from the housing department and they miss it, they may not ever get another chance.
Already, there have been reports of instances of sexual assault of migrants by cops, including against at least one teenager. These horrific acts are tragedies that could–and should–have been predicted, given CPD’s track record of committing sexual violence. Indeed, these acts make plain the inherent violence of forcing asylum seekers to shelter at police stations (and thus be held captive by armed officers who act with impunity) just as they underscore the complicity of OEMC and the city in refusing to take seriously the safety of those in its care.
Young Black and brown organizers with Good Kids Mad City gathered outside the 10th district police station in an emergency protest against police sexual assault. Their mobilization on the doorstep of cops who also inflict gender violence on the communities they regularly “serve” demanded police and ICE abolition, along with the immediate needs to hold city leaders accountable for forcing anyone to seek safety from the CPD and to slash the funding they steal from the public good.
Fumbling the Political Football
The fact that police stations are seen as the only place to send people speaks to the severity of Chicago’s crisis of disinvestment. In many parts of the city, police stations are among the last remaining publicly owned properties. And, over the past decade, instead of funding life-affirming institutions, the city that infamously shuttered fifty public schools in a single year has instead invested ever-greater sums of public funding into police, the single largest expenditure in the annual budget.
Under mayor Lori Lightfoot, thousands of human beings arriving from Texas were treated as a “burden.” Lightfoot publicly called on Abbott in an open letter not to force Chicago to “shoulder” the imposition of human beings in need, claiming, “We simply have no more shelters, space, or resources.”
The fact that at that moment children were sleeping on bare floors served her political theater, underscoring how the peculiar Southern practice of heaping hungry mouths on already parched food deserts proves Republicans are a terrifying breed apart.
If she was truly as concerned about the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers as she wrote to Governor Abbott, she must have forgotten to tell her fellow elected officials here in Chicago. The City Council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights had not convened a single meeting in a year, and after finally meeting in May, proposed no new initiatives.
Now, Mayor Johnson has declared that he is committed to getting people out of police stations. Asylum seekers waiting at police stations may be directed into one of fifteen public parks, hotels, and former school buildings the city has converted into “shelters.”
Unfortunately, conditions at city shelters have also been abysmal, with migrants facing moldy food and freezing showers. To have a shot at a housing voucher, asylum seekers must endure an indefinite wait sleeping on cots, mattresses, and even gymnasium floors; obey a curfew; and even refuse donations offered by neighbors.
On July 24, community members among the many who have been organizing across the city to provide basic necessities appeared in front of a ritzy downtown hotel. Inside the city’s Office of Emergency Management hosted an apparently high-priority conference with representatives of the federal Department of Homeland Security. Outside in the smoggy heat, organizers with groups like Organized Communities Against Deportations and Police Station Response Team pleaded for OEMC to assume responsibility over the crisis, making public resources available immediately for “Community care / no cops, no contractors.”
Moreover, volunteers slammed the city for extending $47 million of city funds earmarked for asylum seekers to Favorite Staffing, a for-profit company contracted to provide services at city “shelters.” Favorite’s staff have also racked up numerous accusations of mistreatment, including the withholding of food.
In a hopeful sign, the city has announced plans to phase out the contract with Favorite Staffing and move to a community-run model. On July 28, the Johnson administration stated it would turn eight of its shelters over to community organizations. However, the details of this new plan remain unclear.
Across the city, neighbors and community organizations have already constructed their own welcoming spaces, like the volunteer-run “Todo Para Todos” (“Everything for Everyone”) shelter in Pilsen, or the community-led conversion of space at St. Paul’s Church in Lincoln Park to accommodate a small number of families in real beds.
These models among many local mutual aid efforts demonstrate the disconnect between everyday Chicagoans working to support their new neighbors and their government that, despite having millions more in resources at their disposal, continually fails asylum seekers.
“Legal Triage” Needed Now
Lawyer and advocate Paula Roa highlights another urgent problem that could be addressed immediately: finding out if individuals and families being bussed to Chicago must return to Texas to appear in court.
Roa led a virtual training for volunteers already encountering questions about documents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that are so likely to be misleading they seem almost designed to cause system-level and personal disaster.
A Notice to Appear (NTA) assigns an alien number and states a violation of US immigration law a person may be charged with violating. It may or may not state a specific date on which a case under this A-number will be due to appear in court. Regardless, asylum seekers should check the status of any case filed with immigration courts weekly. Sometimes an ICE official has simply recorded a date to fill in a blank without conferring with courts at all. And in other cases, the two do eventually talk to each other, and a court date may be scheduled with no notice.
An NTA may or may not state where a court appearance is allegedly scheduled to take place. But because ICE officials are filing these forms in Texas, it is very likely the asylum seeker’s case may be filed in Texas. A person with no means of returning to Texas to appear at a court date they may or may not have been notified to appear in would most likely need a lawyer’s help to file a successful motion to change the venue of the case to Chicago.
Nonetheless, asylum seekers abducted from Texas and now in Chicago should change their address with ICE and immigration courts as soon as possible. In the best of cases, this information could help people avoid having cases initiated in Texas at all.
NTAs should not be confused with orders for ICE check-ins. Notifying ICE by phone, website, or even by email (in English) may allow an asylum seeker to apply for asylum. Having been served an NTA already robs people of their right to first proactively seek asylum, and diverts them directly into what should be a second chance, making a defensive claim to asylum to block their all-too-likely deportation process. President Biden has raised the stakes, asserting a five-year ban on asylum claims as a part of the penalty for being convicted of violating immigration law.
Placing aside for the moment the uphill, years-long battle asylum-seekers may face to win recognition of their right to live and work in the United States, Roa stressed that volunteers can offer information and internet access to asylum seekers who need to look up their A-numbers and change their addresses right now.
The city could also take up the initiative to organize trainings on a much larger scale, enacting a volunteer-run legal triage that could also help identify the most timely needs for legal aid to file change of venue motions.
Opposition to City Shelters
Unfortunately, not all Chicagoans have welcomed asylum seekers. Some of the first city shelters drew organized and vocal push-back. In February, when Wadsworth Elementary School, one of the beloved neighborhood school buildings closed in 2013, received the first 100 people moved there from police stations, protesters attempted to block the busses. Aldermen decried the city’s decision to place asylum seekers there without consulting the community.
Indeed, in neighborhoods across the city, residents have voiced a variety of objections to the use of public facilities as shelters. Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor reports at least one violent altercation has already taken place between a longer-standing resident of her ward and newly arrived asylum seekers. Some of the animus undoubtedly takes the shape of xenophobic resentment. But in some cases, it stems from a deep and longstanding frustration at the city’s looting of more and more public resources in order to benefit developments in wealthy neighborhoods, which is then followed up by broken promises to invest in the same communities from whom such resources were taken.
As Taylor told the City Council in March, “When it comes to Black people, it’s always, ‘let’s wait.’” She went on, “Let’s not make this about us against the migrants … But we should have a sanctuary for everybody.” As the Hyde Park Herald reported, Taylor asked, “We got 60,000 people who are homeless, how are we helping those families?”
“Disrespect” was the word Taylor chose for the sentiments her community brought to her over the city’s response to asylum seekers, but “displacement” was the word emblazoned on bright yellow pre-printed signs and stickers at a crowded July 27th public forum at Broadway Armory on the North Side. The city’s announcement that it would begin housing asylum seekers there drew contingents both in support of community resources and care for human beings born in other countries along with a “Save Our Park” opposition.
Amazingly, those mobilizing under the slogan “Don’t Displace Us” were not the ones voicing their sympathy with people forced to flee effects of US foreign policy that drove them to seek asylum. They were there to oppose the presence of asylum seekers near their backyards.
A hand-lettered sign asserted that “Our Children Have a Right to Feel Safe in Their Own Neighborhood.” Incredibly, this did not appear to be a declaration of solidarity meant to welcome the parents and children whose homelands were more dangerous than the harrowing process of requesting safety in the wealthiest nation in the hemisphere, which boasts about the barbed-wire strength of its “deterrence.” Instead it appeared to acknowledge that the real concern was not the disruption of park district programming that would be moved to other nearby parks but the specter of brown children in their children’s neighborhood.
The contrast between the realities of displacement on a global scale–as of the end of 2022, over 100 million people were forced out of their homes and homelands worldwide–and the complaints of relatively comfortable Northsiders (who can feign ignorance of the roots of their own wealth and privilege) is stark. And a distinction can also be drawn between concerns emanating from the segregated and unequal areas of the city.
Those more accustomed to having to fight for resources and being met with racist hostility by the state and the wealthy may be more open to arguments against a race-to-the-bottom model of competition for resources. Instead, united, multiracial struggle is urgently needed to reach beyond the neoliberal confines of the politically possible to mobilize public resources to meet everyone’s needs.
Moving Toward Permanent Housing
Both the Chicago Housing Department and the Illinois Housing Development Authority are slowly beginning to place asylum-seekers into apartments, but doing so at the will of landlords to accept vouchers they say they fear may run out. For city leadership, proactively demanding private landlords make vacant homes available to asylum seekers remains less politically palatable than people giving birth and being born in Chicago police stations.
In Chicago, the long-term disinvestment and structural violence left behind by capital has left a bleak reality (both for arriving asylum-seekers and for housing-insecure and poor residents already living here). But a widespread, largely unacknowledged response by everyday Chicagoans to these multiple and intersecting crises has been to go out of their way to support those arriving and push the city to do better. In the short term, there is much that the city can do to bolster those efforts, rather than throwing millions of dollars away to unaccountable corporations who profit off of providing substandard services.
In the long term, there is simply no reason for anyone in the city to be forced to sleep in a police station—or a shelter. In Chicago, there are fifty-seven vacant homes for every person experiencing homelessness (or 307,284 vacant housing units). These are homes that real estate capital would rather let sit empty than house fellow human beings. These same forces, along with financial capital and other corporate interests, have looted our city for profits and left us with police stations. Thus, challenging these forces is vital for creating a very different set of conditions for all who seek to live and thrive in this city.
Armed with solidarity and mutual care for our neighbors from near and far, a better Chicago for all—lifelong residents and those arriving today—is eminently possible.