CHICAGO — Sitting under a tree on the grass next to a hotel in a southwest suburb of Chicago, several migrant families from Venezuela were talking, still wondering why they had been relocated so far from the city in which they arrived.
“I’m grateful, but we feel stuck here,” Matilde Menendez said in Spanish.
Her family — one daughter and her husband — arrived in Chicago more than a week ago in the first buses of migrants that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent to Chicago as a way to criticize the nation’s immigration policies and his promise to send asylum-seekers to sanctuary cities.
Abbott is seeking reelection on Nov. 8 against Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke and is considered a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate. His daily attacks on President Joe Biden’s border policies and his Operation Lone Star border enforcement effort are viewed as ways the government can build support with conservative voters in Texas and nationwide.
Menendez and the rest of the families that sat under the tree were among the dozens of refugees transported from a shelter in Humboldt Park to a hotel in Burr Ridge on Wednesday.
Burr Ridge is a nearby suburb of Chicago and is considered one of the wealthiest towns in Illinois. It’s also considered more conservative than Chicago and much of Illinois. Burr Ridge Mayor Gary Grasso is a Republican who lashed out against “woke politics” in finishing second in June’s GOP primary for a U.S. House seat now held by a Democrat.
Migrants said they are grateful for shelter and the assistance they are getting, but have concerns being in Burr Ridge.
“They’ve treated us well, but they’re not telling us what’s going on or where are we going next,” said Eglee Velazquez, a mother of three. “We need a home, my husband needs a job and my kids need to go to school. We are tired.”
Though grateful to have a comfortable bed, plenty of food and clean clothes to wear, the group is concerned they will face isolation from being far away from the city, and that the distance will make it harder to seek help and make connections on their own to find permanent housing and find work, they said.
Other grassroots activists and elected officials have also voiced their concern that the steps the state and city are taking to not only welcome migrants, but to provide them with a comprehensive guide to establish themselves in the Chicago area, are not enough. After a journey of nearly three months from their native town in Venezuela, fleeing extreme poverty and an authoritarian regime, most are desperately looking for a final stop of their siege, Baltazar Enriquez from the Little Village Community Council said.
Enriquez and several volunteers from the organization were at Union Station when the first buses from Texas arrived and have been in contact with some migrants despite not working with the city or the state officially. The group has connected some migrants to jobs and a permanent place to live. They also have given them clothes and activated several phones lines for them.
“Let’s be honest, that’s all they need and for that, they need to be near other immigrants that have done the same in the past. We help each other out,” Enriquez said. “But I don’t know what’s the plan that the state and local government have.”
The first group of migrants arrived at Chicago’s Union Station on Aug. 31 in two buses carrying dozens each all seeking asylum. The migrants were transported from Texas with more expected to arrive in the coming weeks as part of Abbott’s plans to send the migrants to sanctuary cities, including Washington and New York City, in response to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.
Another bus of migrants arrived in Chicago over the weekend with more than 50 people looking for new beginnings. And more than 150 asylum-seekers arrived in three more buses on Wednesday afternoon.
Also on Wednesday, 64 of those migrants were temporally placed in a Burr Ridge hotel, according to a statement from Mayor Grasso. Village elected officials and staff were not consulted or contacted about the decision to move the migrants from the Salvation Army Shield of Hope shelter to the village, the statement said.
The families are expected to stay in the hotel over the next few weeks but ultimately no more than 30 days from when they first arrived, and staff members from the Illinois Department of Human Services are staying in town to assist with locating housing and employment, according to the statement. Some of the refugees have family in the area while others are being assisted by private agencies. There also are reports of other migrants being sent to another nearby hotel.
But Menendez and Velazquez said that they are still waiting to follow up with the agencies and organizations they were connected to at the shelter they were welcomed in. Before a representative of the Illinois Department of Human Services approached them to prohibit them from speaking to reporters, the mothers shared their concern about not having better access to find schools for their children.
Erendira Rendon, vice president of Immigrant Justice at The Resurrection Project, said that the city and state are working together to figure out what the next steps look like for all the families and individual asylum-seekers in Chicago. “But it is complicated and it takes time. Like so many immigrants before us, with some help, we can help figure it out.”
Rendon has been at the forefront of the efforts to welcome the migrants since the first bus arrived and said that community organization are meeting to discuss a long-term plan of how to better assist and inform the families of their rights and their options upon arrival.
Earlier this year, Burr Ridge was host to people seeking asylum from Afghanistan who have now found permanent housing and employment, the statement from the village said.
“Burr Ridge offers all persons from around the world a better in life in the United States,” the statement said. “We also want to assure our residents and businesses that the current situation will be handled in an orderly and safe manner for all. If you would like to donate materials to these refugees, please visit World Relief Chicagoland.”
Echoing some of the same arguments Democrats have made to lambaste Abbott, Grasso in interviews has questioned the lack of cooperation and notice he’s gotten from Democratic leaders in Chicago and Illinois.
“I’m glad that the American dream is still alive for a lot of people as it was for my grandparents when they came here and for most people that are in this country. So very happy for them,” Grasso said in an interview with Fox32 in Chicago. “But unhappy that nobody from the city, from the state called and told me or my village administrator or any of our elected officials that this was happening.”
According to a report by NBC5 in Chicago, the Illinois Department of Human Services put out a statement explaining that the migrants from Texas are “receiving temporary shelter in urban and suburban hotels that have provided refuge for vulnerable families from Afghanistan and other parts of the world. We are grateful for the hospitality and care they have received from individuals and organizations across Illinois.”
Alejandra Oliva, community engagement manager at National Immigrant Justice Watch, said the organization had been in talks with the city upon news that migrants would be sent to Chicago, but it wasn’t until a bus actually left Texas and was on the way to the city last week that the planning kicked into high gear.
Oliva said staff with the National Immigrant Justice Watch has been meeting with the migrants since their arrival to begin helping them from a legal standpoint. The first step for many, she said, is explaining to each person what paperwork was given to them at the border and giving everyone a brief overview as to what their next steps would be depending on individual circumstances.
“We’re very much in the middle of figuring everything out,” Oliva said. “I mean considering that we got our first group of people a week ago, we’re still figuring out what ongoing involvement looks like or means and figuring out what people actually need as far as next steps of immigration.”
A vast majority of the people working with NIJC are attorneys who have practiced immigration law for several years, Oliva said, which is why the city tapped the organization to take on the legal aspect of the migrants arriving in Chicago. Despite working on “very little notice,” Oliva said the organization was able to “spring into action and meet a lot of needs.”
“You have to imagine that it’s a really disorienting experience to cross the border and then get whisked off into another part of the country that you’re not totally sure of,” Oliva said. “Our biggest goal was to make sure everyone who arrived here understood where they were and what was going on.”
‘This is a human crisis’
Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez said that members of the Latino Caucus of the Chicago City Council haven’t been allowed to tour the shelter in Humboldt Park where the migrants were taken upon arrival despite making the requests. Sigcho-Lopez added that he is concerned that the city and state may not understand the type of infrastructure or capacity that is needed to welcome the migrants and help them find permanent housing.
“This is a human crisis, we need to all work together — city and community members— to provide help,” Sigcho-Lopez said.
The alderman also criticized the city and state government for not being more transparent about the plan they have for migrants after they leave the temporary housing. He added that Burr Ridge does not have the resources needed and that migrants are now “isolated.”
Rendon said that the community organizations and agencies collaborating with the city and state are working to equip the migrants with the right information and the right connections so that they can transition into finding a permanent home.
“Migrants need to be in places where their language is understood, where their pain is understood, they need to be places — or at least let them or provide them with access to immigrants like us,” Enriquez said.
Meanwhile, the migrants at the hotel under the care of the Illinois Department of Human Services, say they hope that their case manager can follow up with them soon.
“We have a dream, we come here to work,” Zaide Colorado, a mother of three said while sitting under a tree with the rest of the mothers.
Dallas Morning News assistant politics editor John Gravois contributed to this report.