Currently, about 1,600 migrants are living in police stations across Chicago — a solution that was intended to be temporary. But many of those men, women and children have been sleeping on floors or in tents outside police stations for months.
In the last week, altercations between asylum seekers and police have resulted in the arrest of migrants, and Mayor Brandon Johnson made public his plan to move migrants into winterized tents.
From the police station shelters’ earliest days, a volunteer group has delivered food, health care and other support to the migrants, organizing primarily via WhatsApp.
Volunteer Erika Villegas said from her observation, the living conditions for migrant groups vary widely from station to station and depend on the officers in charge.
“The conditions actually have worsened from the beginning of my journey back in April,” Villegas said. “But there are stations where we do have collaboration from police officers and unfortunately, we do have stations where we have very (little) or no cooperation, which has resulted in some of the (conflicts) that have just happened recently.”
The migrants volunteer Kathryn Zamarron has spoken to often complain of poor treatment by the officers in the stations.
“Unfortunately, what I hear a lot is, ‘They’re treating us like animals,’ which is a terrible situation to be in, when one person is treated that way,” Zamarron said. “Even just the verbal communication between folks, or the lack thereof of verbal communication, of restricting access to bathrooms or restricting access to the lobbies, which are public areas, even often are used as cooling and warming centers during extreme temperatures. And so what we’re talking about is very basic things, just about, how do you treat people with respect?”
Diego Garcia said in his estimation, the city has relied too much on the good will and work of community volunteers to fill the gaps in care.
“I think neighbors have definitely stepped up a lot within these past few months to help feed our new arrivals, but there’s still a lot of space for the city to join in on us and collaborate on these efforts,” he said.
One way of managing expectations on both sides and easing relations could be through a codification of migrants’ rights, said Villegas.
“We would love to see some sort of rules set up where migrants know what the conditions will be at police stations, what to expect at police stations from the city, what kind of services are they going to be receiving?” Villegas said. “We would also love to see the police officers collaborating with the volunteers and the city to know that what is expected of them while our families are sleeping at a police station. So part of our ask has always been the same, has never changed. We want access to health care. We want access to better housing. We want three meals a day, which has never happened in the last five months that I’ve been involved, and we want people to have access to showers and running water.”
Given the difficult circumstances and uncertainty, Zamarron said conflicts between asylum seekers and police is unsurprising.
“We’re talking about a vulnerable population here,” Zamarron said. “We’re talking about folks who don’t have a private space, a space to call their own, a space where they really get to decide what their living situation is like. But we’re also talking about a department that has a long history of these kinds of interactions. We’re talking about a department that is under a federal consent decree for the way that they treat citizens in the city and just residents as well. So it’s not surprising that our newest neighbors are being subjected to the same kind of treatment and the same kind of attitudes that all of us have been subjected to in Chicago for a long time.”
Garcia expressed frustration with the unfulfilled promises of solutions from both former Mayor Lori Lightfoot and now the Johnson administration.
“I still think, though, that the city promised us creative solutions when we had a new mayor transition into the other office, right?” Garcia said. “We’re talking about plans that need to be long-term and not short-term. … We have nearly 2,000 migrants sleeping on police station floors. They eat on police station floors. We need to hear from the city and find out whether or not they are going to give us tangible solutions to the problems that migrants have been communicating with us.”
Villegas said Johnson’s most recent plan to house migrants in winterized tents outside of police stations is insufficient for what’s to come, and suggested the city prioritize getting work permits expedited so that migrants can begin rebuilding their lives.
“They discussed that they want to have families in these tent cities between two and four weeks,” Villegas said. “We know based on the (city’s) history that it’s not going to be what’s really going to happen, when we have families at police stations for over three and a half months. So we need to really focus on some of the housing needs that people have. … They talked about having people get on their own two feet and being able to rent an apartment. The reality is that people don’t have credit, don’t have jobs, and the ones that do have jobs because they’ve been able to do it are working under the table, which then they can’t show proof of income. So there is a lot more to this process for people to get on their feet. If we want really the city for our families, our migrant families, to take on that role, then we need to set up a plan and we need to do a sustainable long-term plan.”
Zamarron said from her perspective, the current situation is the result of a failure by the United States to develop meaningful immigration reform, compounded by a failure to invest in policy that works.
I think we have a lot of spaces in the city that are vacant, and this is something that we talk about a lot as a nuisance,” Zamarron said. “We’re talking about vacant buildings, we’re talking about vacant lots, even some vacant lots that are owned by the city already. And so I think there are a lot of opportunities for us to get into … long-term solutions because really, this is not a problem that started a year ago. This problem didn’t start with Brandon Johnson or Lightfoot or Greg Abbott. This problem started in 2008 when we had an opportunity to fix immigration and we didn’t fix immigration, in 2003 when we established the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs enforcement. These are forces that are not that old. And we’ve been investing in surveillance and in enforcement for 20 years, and this is where it has gotten us. We could have been investing in expediting work permits. We could have been investing in housing, we could have been investing in case management, and we didn’t. And so we need to really look at the full picture so that people can become independent and become stewards of their own lives.”