Chicago officials say trip to Texas helped build collaboration with border cities in addressing migrant crisis

CHICAGO — A delegation of city officials who went to Texas last week said their three days at the border helped build collaboration between the border cities and Chicago but highlighted a dearth of federal funds and coordination in addressing the migrant crisis.

In a briefing with reporters Thursday, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s deputy chief of staff Cristina Pacione-Zayas said the group’s biggest takeaway from the trip included the need for a coalition made up of border and interior cities, such as Chicago, to advocate for a comprehensive federal resettlement plan that includes increased and flexible funding for sheltering operations and overall expenses.

“We will definitely need to continue to deliver our message about how much more resource intensive this work is — particularly in the interior cities,” Pacione-Zayas said.

She said the delegation learned best practice methods from border city emergency management operations and also started the conversation with border cities how to better coordinate the transportation of migrants by bus to Chicago.

The group of state, city, federal, philanthropic, legal and faith leaders spent last Tuesday through Thursday in El Paso and San Antonio, touring a U.S. Customs and Border Protection site, a processing center and several shelters, as well as meeting with local city and county leadership.

Last week, the Tribune spoke to Beatriz Ponce de Leon, the city’s deputy mayor of immigrant, migrant and refugee rights, by phone while the delegation was in El Paso. Ponce de Leon said they asked El Paso’s democratic mayor, Oscar Leeser, to coordinate with Chicago officials before sending buses of migrants.

Currently, buses of migrants arrive at any time, day or night, with little to no warning. Buses can arrive in throngs, or as few as one or two.

Ponce de Leon said the city would like to only receive buses between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

“What we learned is that the city of El Paso is committed to doing that and has been doing it, but the buses that are sent by the Texas Department of Emergency Management … those have much less cooperation and coordination,” Ponce de Leon said Oct. 18.

Pacione-Zayas said Thursday that she learned El Paso and San Antonio are pass-through cities, with the singular mission to move migrants into the interior of the United States. Most federal dollars go to border cities, she said, leaving the Chicago migrant budget in the hands of Chicago taxpayers.

Meanwhile, El Paso County received millions more than Cook County in emergency funding for the federal government’s Shelter and Services Program this year, according to government data.

But the program — which provides money for sheltering services to migrants who have been released by the Department of Homeland Security — only applies within 45 days of their release. Democratic U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckwort, along with 13 of the state’s 14 Democratic House members, have asked for more resources from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to be able to provide continuous services for migrants as they settle in Chicago.

Laura Cruz-Acosta, strategic communications director for the city of El Paso, confirmed to the Tribune that the city uses a combination of federal and state government funding to send buses of migrants to Chicago. She said city officials speak with migrants and send them to locations they request — mainly New York, Denver and Chicago.

“What we find is that less than 1% of the migrants arriving in El Paso want to stay in El Paso. They have other destinations in mind because they have either a friend, family member or a job already lined up within the interior of the United States,” she said.

Cruz-Acosta said what distinguishes this wave of migrants from those in the past is that they don’t have sponsors to help provide funding for them to get to their final destination. Most of the migrants coming to Chicago arrive from Venezuela, which is struggling with a massive economic crisis due to falling oil prices and an authoritarian leader.

Because there is now a strong community of Venezuelans who have landed in Chicago’s city-run shelters, more migrants in border cities such as San Antonio are expressing that they want to be bused up for shelter, said Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, who also went on the trip.

“People come where there is community, and there is now a community here,” he said. “That is what is driving migration to Chicago.”

As of Thursday morning, there are more than 11,700 migrants in city shelters, and more than 2,500 migrants sleeping at police districts waiting for placement in a shelter. More than 500 also waiting for placement are staying at O’Hare.

More buses were expected to arrive over the course of the day.

Johnson was expected to take the trip to the southern border, but reconsidered, saying his efforts were better spent at home.

Bishop Simon Gordon, senior pastor of Triedstone Church of Chicago, joined the delegation with the hopes that religious leaders across all faiths can come together to help find quick solutions, as migrants face bleeker winter weeks and months ahead. He said last year a church in his denomination took in almost 400, but then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot moved them into city-run shelters.

“One of the biggest challenges I saw was that there’s not a designated Venezuelan population in our country — and definitely not in Chicago — where they can go,” said Gordon, who paid for his trip to El Paso after being invited by the delegation. “That’s where the challenge is. There’s not a family for them to go to.”

The city did not say how much money was spent on the trip. Aldermen said the city picked up the tab for airfare and lodging, but they did pay for their own meals.

Ald. William E. Hall, 6th, described the trip as a “fact-finding mission” that was “essential.” He said it was hard for him to watch how border protection took away migrants’ belongings in detention centers on the border — giving them jumpsuits.

“Imagine going to jail. It’s just like going to a federal penitentiary,” he said.

He said he hopes to coordinate with nonprofits in border towns to give migrants coats there in anticipation of their arrival in Chicago. He said he better understands the amount of social workers needed at the border to respond to unaccompanied minors.

And he said he has a better sense of the disconnect between Venezuela and the United States, and of the way migrant populations rapidly change and shift.


©2023 Chicago Tribune. Visit at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

This story was originally published October 26, 2023, 6:18 PM.

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