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Jesus Jimenez sitting in tent

Jesus Jimenez — a migrant who recently came to Chicago — sits in his tent in the morning near the city’s 12th District police station on July 10, 2023.

Manuel Martinez

A day with Chicago migrants: Sleeping in tents, hoping for progress

Steps away from the 12th District police station on Chicago’s near West Side, Alex Rossi sweeps the entryway to a red camping tent that holds his life’s belongings.

He lives in a cluster of tents in an open, grassy field with other Central American immigrants who have fled their native countries. For Rossi, sleeping under the thin tent lining gives him a modicum of freedom over his life that has been marked by upheaval.

In Chicago, a self-proclaimed sanctuary city, Rossi’s other options aren’t much more forgiving: wait for weeks for a spot in maxed-out city shelters or sleep on the floor of police station lobbies.

Nearly a year after the first bus of migrants was sent to Chicago, the city still lacks an infrastructure to house, feed and care for the more than 11,000 asylum-seekers who have found themselves here.

Driven by an urgent need to help, a constellation of nonprofits, advocates and everyday Chicagoans are filling in the gaps. A team of WBEZ reporters fanned out on a recent day in one small slice of Chicago on the near West Side to capture how the plight is playing out.

On this hot, sunny day, a volunteer takes down the shoe size of a migrant who arrived the night before to replace the sandals that are too small for him. A nonprofit staffer who quit her day job to help with the humanitarian crisis makes the rounds to pick up people staying at police stations so they can shower. And immigration attorneys help coach a woman through the asylum process so she has a shot at staying in the U.S. permanently.

New arrivals living outside the 12th District police station have created an ad-hoc community of their own. A rug laid out on the grass at the tents’ entrance marks an informal gathering space where people sit and talk. An unplugged refrigerator gets filled with ice to keep food cold. One of many children living there abandons a ball after it rolls across the busy street and stops under a parked car. Another dozen tents are set up in the distance under the shade of some trees.

In his tent, Rossi can keep his immigration documents and belongings close by. But being out in the elements can also leave him exposed. An orange traffic post rigged with a piece of string keeps a plastic tarp in place over the tent to try to protect him from the rain. But water still finds a way to leak in.

“This isn’t life,” Rossi said in Spanish. “You can rest, but this isn’t life.”

Choosing tents over police stations and shelters

Rossi wakes up at 5 a.m. to try to look for work. Sometimes, people take him up on his offers for small gigs. He sees people driving for ride services like Uber, and laments his lack of a car. Without steady income, he wonders how he will ever get ahead and find a place of his own.

Alex Rossi and Paola Pacheo

Alex Rossi and Paola Pacheco clean up their belongings after a night of sleeping in tents near Chicago’s 12th District police station. Several migrants have chosen to sleep in tents outside the police station rather than inside.

Manuel Martinez

“I’m looking for people that can give me support, that can help me with a job, help me with an apartment,” Rossi said in Spanish. “I’m happy to work, because that’s my goal. Because I want to fight and learn each day a little more than what I knew.”

It’s a sense of stability that many new arrivals at the 12th District police station crave.

Migrants sleeping inside the police station said they feel they have little choice but to be tied to the location when they don’t know what day or time a bus might arrive to transport them to a city shelter.

“What we want to know is if they can get us out of here as fast as possible,” Juan Carlos Blanco Cassiani, a Venezuelan immigrant who has lived at the shelter for weeks, said in Spanish. “Because there are too many kids.”

As of Friday, more than 770 people were staying in police stations and another three dozen at O’Hare Airport waiting for a spot in city shelters that were already housing more than 5,260 people. Some of the asylum-seekers bused to Chicago have left for the suburbs or other states.

Alex Rossi organizing tent

Alex Rossi organizes his tent with goods that were donated by volunteers at Chicago’s 12th District police station. A constellation of nonprofits, advocates and everyday Chicagoans are helping provide support for the asylum-seekers.

Manuel Martinez

In the tents in the field near the police station, a woman is two months pregnant. She only learned she was expecting after a visit to the emergency room, said Elisa Herrera, a case manager with Casa Michoacan whose offices are down the street. That day, Herrera helped the woman fill out paperwork so she can be referred for benefits. Other women staying at the station and in the tents have experienced miscarriages, said Veronica Saldaña, a 12th District police station volunteer.

“I mean, they’re sleeping on the floor,” Saldaña said through tears. “It’s just hard.”

Migrants fear for their children’s safety

All kinds of people enter the station’s revolving doors — including people who may have been mentally unstable or drunk. Migrants say one man showed up and got naked in front of them.

“We see incidents here that put the children’s mental state in jeopardy,” Ivan Castro, who arrived from Venezuela last month, said in Spanish.

It’s stories like those that Lupe Puga, a Pilsen resident who volunteers at the police station, has heard before.

Families who have been staying at Chicago’s 12th District police station sit outside

Families who have been staying at Chicago’s 12th District police station sit outside while the lobby is cleaned.

Manuel Martinez

“They’re described as people that are zombie-like, that scare the children,” Puga said. “They come in the middle of the night, and then the moms feel like they can’t sleep, because they fear for their children’s safety.”

The station is usually quiet during the day as people search for housing, food and legal help, said Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who represents the 25th Ward. But at night, or when it rains, the lobby can be crowded with young kids.

“We’re being very vocal about the dangers that it is to leave people in police districts,” Sigcho-Lopez said, as he points to towering stacks of blankets and pillows that line the walls of 12th District police station while an employee mops the floor. “The more time that goes by, we’re seeing the more consequences, health effects, unfortunately.”

The police oversight body and Bureau of Internal Affairs are investigating allegations that Chicago police officers committed sexual misconduct against at least one migrant who’d been housed at the 10th District police station. Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office says the allegation involves sexual misconduct against a minor new arrival. The allegations prompted Johnson’s administration to move those living there, with the goal of stopping the use of police stations from housing migrants altogether.

“I think right now what we see is a very tragic scene. I think the lack of having a plan in the last administration has put us in this situation,” Sigcho-Lopez said, referring to former Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Johnson’s administration is working to open additional city shelters, while expediting the resettlement of asylum-seekers into more permanent housing with the help of rental assistance.

Women organize their belongings and bedding in the lobby of the 12th District police station

Women organize their belongings and bedding in the lobby of the 12th District police station, where they sleep on July 14, 2023.

Manuel Martinez

The strain on the city’s infrastructure has exposed long-standing systemic issues, Sigcho-Lopez said, like long waitlists for limited affordable housing and social service agencies that rely on inconsistent federal funding. The city has leaned heavily on volunteers and faith-based organizations that have stepped up to provide services, but they are not a permanent solution, he said.

Sonia Lopez, an employee of the Little Village nonprofit New Life Centers, said she worried the sexual misconduct allegations could result in losing migrants’ trust.

“I almost feel like the situation with the police officer almost tarnished what we do,” Lopez said. “It makes us as Americans just look like … are we taking advantage of this situation?”

“A last line of defense for migrants”

Back at the 12th District police station, families sit on the sidewalk in small patches of shade while the station is cleaned — a daily routine that forces them outside for several hours. Towels and clothes dry out under the hot sun. A young boy crouches barefoot as he scoops out a strawberry fruit cup that was delivered by volunteers.

Veronica Saldaña hands out breakfast to migrants who are living in or near Chicago’s 12th District police station.

Veronica Saldaña hands out breakfast to migrants who are living in or near Chicago’s 12th District police station.

Manuel Martinez

The boxes of Fiber One bars, Pop-Tart Bites, fruit cups and cherries delivered this morning were quickly picked over. Another delivery of Ziploc bags of sandwiches, fruit and bottled water are nearly gone within the span of 15 minutes.

The station sees new arrivals almost daily, said Puga, who works from home in tech and makes the five-minute drive to deliver food as part of a collective of volunteers.

At the Pilsen Food Pantry a 10-minute walk away, pews hold donated piles of secondhand clothes. There are also crates full of toothbrushes, hygiene products and baby food for new arrivals.

Saldaña works as the nonprofit’s volunteer coordinator, and she tries to bring donations to the police station, rather than have people come to them, to ease asylum-seekers’ fears of missing the bus to a shelter. Her morning rounds checking in with migrants have become a part of her routine and her kids wait in her idling van before she drops them off at summer school.

Sometimes it feels like she spends too much of her time at the police station, Saldaña said. Her days don’t end. But then she thinks of the missed connections of recruiting neighbors to volunteer if she hadn’t spent the few extra minutes there. Or wonders about how asylum-seekers would have gone without basics like water and ice if she didn’t help marshal resources.

She also thinks of her late grandmother, who immigrated to Chicago in the 1940s and raised eight kids but still always gave her neighbors a humble meal.

“She would always have a pot of beans on the stove,” Saldaña said. “She didn’t have much, but she wanted to be able to at least offer something to people who came by. And there was always somebody dropping by for help.”

If her grandma were still here, Saldaña knows her grandmother would be cooking for those staying at the police station. It’s a faithfulness to serve that she plans to continue.

“We’re definitely a last line of defense for them — their only line of defense in some ways, right?” Saldaña said. “So as long as they’re there, we’re just gonna keep showing up and doing what we can.”

“I was praying for a job like this”

A short drive from the 12th District police station, Yanet Sandoval pulls up to another police station hosting migrants – the 9th District in Bridgeport – in a large black unmarked van. She puts on a face mask and hops out. More than a dozen migrants sit on the curb away from the hot sun. Sandoval said some of the migrants know her — and the van. She usually brings food, but doesn’t have any today.

Yanet Sandoval (right) gives asylum-seekers rides to and from New Life Centers in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood so they can take showers.

Yanet Sandoval (right) gives asylum-seekers rides to and from New Life Centers in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood so they can take showers.

Manuel Martinez

“Banar. Banar,” Sandoval calls out in Spanish.

“Bath. Bath.”

She offers a ride to a mobile shower station set up on 27th Street in front of New Life, but just a few come along. Next stop: to offer showers to migrants staying at a different police station — this time in the 8th District police district about 30 minutes southwest.

Driven by her faith, Sandoval said she quit her job at a suburban UPS warehouse to take what was supposed to be just a two-month job at New Life. She’s an immigrant from Mexico who came to the U.S. when she was five years old and grew up in Little Village.

“I was praying for a job like this to help others, like to help the migrants,” Sandoval said. “I want people to see God in my face, that I can reflect his love for them.”

She couldn’t recall having an arduous journey from Mexico as a child, unlike the stories she hears from migrants on the drive to the next police station. Sitting behind her in the van, John Ortega, 31, recalls in Spanish how he left his wife and son behind in Venezuela to shield them from the dangerous journey he went through to get to Chicago. He said he saw women in the jungle pregnant and dead.

As Sandoval pulls the van up to 27th Street, Ortega and the other passengers hop out and make their way to the clothes and coffee in the basement of New Life. They wait their turn to take a hot shower in a trailer outfitted with private showers.

Darwin Ramos mobile shower station

Darwin Ramos, an asylum-seeker from Venezuela, prepares to take a shower inside a mobile shower station in front of New Life Centers in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood.

Manuel Martinez

Ortega said he’s grateful for helpers like Sandoval. He said he didn’t expect it, and wished he could show how thankful he is.

He hadn’t showered in eight days.

The long road to real stability

The cast of Chicagoans piecing together meals, showers and clothes for migrants temporarily sheltered at police stations or fieldhouses know this is just the beginning of a much longer journey toward the real stability people are seeking: legal asylum status.

Roughly two miles from the 12th District police station, attorney Alexis Aranda Zelasko with the nonprofit Instituto del Progreso Latino, is ticking through a form with biographical information – phone number, current address – that will help her craft an asylum application for a recent arrival, Johanna, who asked WBEZ not to use her full name to protect her privacy and safety.

But Aranda Zelasko is also asking tough questions, such as what would happen to Johanna if she’s forced to go back to Venezuela. Johanna said she was abused as a child and then mistreated by the father of her children. Talking through these details can be a difficult task for someone who has experienced trauma, but an incomplete or watered-down story could be detrimental to an application for asylum, Aranda Zelasko said.

“These forms ask you to be a narrator — and an award winning narrator of your story because this is your one shot,” Aranda Zelasko said.

child peeking through tent

Marco Luciano sits in his tent in the morning near the 12th District police station.

Manuel Martinez

Johanna describes herself to her caseworker as someone who’s withdrawn because of what she has experienced.

“So many things that have happened to me in my life … how do I explain?” Johanna said through tears. “I’m sorry that I’m crying … I left my home when I was 9 years old because my dad abused me. After all that, I’m like this ... I try to talk to people but I shy away, I get scared.”

Johanna could meet and speak with the attorney up to six times to work on an application, if it turns out she has a case for asylum at all.

Aranda Zelasko said many migrants who’ve come seeking legal asylum won’t qualify for the status — and won’t be advised by an attorney to even apply. Asylum applicants have to prove that they would be or have been persecuted by their government — or an entity the government can’t control — based on a protected class such as race, religion or political belief, Aranda Zelasko said.

“At [an] asylum workshop there were a good amount of [people] who didn’t have a good enough fear for asylum,” Aranda Zelasko said. “It was generally, ‘I can’t make enough money in my country — I’m here.’ I’m oversimplifying that but if that was the basis, we just have to be honest with them and tell them unfortunately, based on what you’re saying, it’s not enough.”

Johanna’s asylum process — if viable — can take five years or more, Aranda Zelasko said. But unlike thousands of people staying in shelters still — she has some stability as she waits.

Since arriving in Chicago on a bus from Texas in October with her three children, Johanna has secured so many of the things migrants in police stations are longing for, including a home with rental assistance and a steady job at a factory.

“I tell single moms don’t be scared to be alone. You’ll find support,” Johanna said. “I have found support here. I’ve had lots of help here. Being in the U.S. — it changed me a lot. I’m not going to say it changed me completely. But a lot.”

WBEZ visual producer Manuel Martinez and news reporter/weekend anchor Araceli Gomez-Aldana contributed.

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