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A Breaking Point? Chicago Struggles to Serve a Flood of Migrants

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Chicago’s mayor says the migrant surge in Texas and Gov. Greg Abbott’s policies have pushed his city to the breaking point and he’s pleading with Congress for help. 

In December, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported more than 300,000 migrants crossed the Mexico border. Many have landed in Chicago, courtesy of Abbott who has bused and flown them to Chicago, New York, Denver, and other sanctuary cities, partially in protest of President Joe Biden’s immigration policies and partially because the state has been overwhelmed by the migrant crisis. For many migrants, churches and ministries have become a lifeline.

On Chicago’s west side on a cold January morning, migrants and asylum seekers sit waiting for a hot breakfast and donated clothing at Catholic Parishes of Oak Park Ministry

Lead coordinator Celine Woznica says the migrants face many challenges, including transportation on the “L” — the city’s rapid transit system. “People come here from all over Chicago so it’s not unusual for them to get up at 3:30 in the morning to get on the “L” by 4 because it might be two hours for them to get here,” she said.

The need for warm clothing is just one motivation. “They’ll arrive here wearing t-shirts and sandals and we’re in Chicago,” said Woznica. 

Rev. Carl Morello, pastor of Ascension and St. Edmund Catholic Parish, says as many as 300 migrants arrive daily seeking clothing, food and other resources. 

“The vast majority come from Venezuela,” says Woznica, “but we also have some coming from Ecuador and Columbia. They are fleeing oppression, some are fleeing drug cartels.”

“Saul” is an attorney who fled Venezuela, fearing the authoritarian government. “I felt that me and my family were at risk of persecution.”

In the last year and a half, more than 26,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago – just a small fraction of the more than 2 million who have entered the U.S. illegally. Saul says the city’s sanctuary status is the reason he and so many others have come. “Sometimes they don’t have a choice. They are just sent on a bus and the bus is headed to a sanctuary city like Chicago,” he said.

Last month Texas transported unannounced busloads of migrants, some even on a chartered jet, to Illinois. Chicago then bused them to its migrant “landing zone.” These unexpected newcomers have Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson fuming at Abbott’s moves. “The reckless and quite frankly, the unsafe behavior of the governor of Texas has caused a great deal of trepidation, to say the least,” he said.

Migrants board a bus as they arrived on a plane from San Antonio at Chicago Rockford International Airport on Jan. 1, 2024 in Rockford, Ill. (WTVO NewsNation via AP)
Migrants board a bus as they arrive on a plane from San Antonio at Chicago Rockford International Airport on Jan. 1, 2024 in Rockford, Ill. (WTVO NewsNation via AP)

Ministry organizers and volunteers say they have to set politics aside at a time like this. “I have been saying this is not a political issue for us, these are people in need of care and we are answering the gospel message,” said Morello.

St. Edmund began its ministry to help the nearby YMCA and Oak Park Police which operate shelters for the migrants. Now it’s an interdenominational effort.

“It is the most beautiful interfaith effort,” said Woznica. “We have Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, the Methodists.”Across the city, other ministries are also serving. On Chicago’s Northwest side, Cityline Bible Church is partnering with World Relief Chicagoland to help the migrants.

Church leaders say many of their first arrivals have found jobs and moved into apartments. Some are now serving at the church. 

In Chicago, however, there’s concern that the city cannot continue to accommodate the newcomers. Johnson says his 27 shelters are near capacity. In November, he imposed a 60-day limit for migrants to stay at those shelters. Today, many are near the limit.

“Without significant intervention from the federal government, this mission will not be sustained,” Johnson said.

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