A Chicago woman who helps migrants fights for a chance to stay in the United States

Luisette Kraal, a native of Curaçao, lives in the U.S. on a religious visa that has run out. For two years she has been a key figure in helping newcomers adjust to the city.

Luisette hugging little girl in store
Luisette Kraal is often at the free clothing store she co-founded in the Uptown neighborhood helping migrants get basic needs or connecting them to resources. She and her husband, Ed, have lived in Chicago for 12 years. They've created a network of support for hundreds of migrants who have recently arrived in Chicago. But due to challenges with their immigration status, they might have to leave the country soon. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Luisette hugging little girl in store
Luisette Kraal is often at the free clothing store she co-founded in the Uptown neighborhood helping migrants get basic needs or connecting them to resources. She and her husband, Ed, have lived in Chicago for 12 years. They've created a network of support for hundreds of migrants who have recently arrived in Chicago. But due to challenges with their immigration status, they might have to leave the country soon. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

A Chicago woman who helps migrants fights for a chance to stay in the United States

Luisette Kraal, a native of Curaçao, lives in the U.S. on a religious visa that has run out. For two years she has been a key figure in helping newcomers adjust to the city.

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Most mornings, Luisette Kraal directs volunteers via walkie talkie. She makes sure newly arrived migrants line up and wait their turn to receive pants and jackets from the free clothing store she co-founded with her husband in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

Other times, Kraal is on her phone arranging furniture deliveries or helping migrants communicate with their landlords. Or she is teaching families how to use public transportation in their new city or inviting them to church dinners.

Kraal, 59, sports a perfectly round, fluffy Afro and is the author of faith-based children’s books. She is not afraid to talk to strangers and quickly shifts between languages — from English to Spanish to Papiamento, a Portuguese-based creole language spoken in the Dutch Caribbean.

“Dutch is my first language,” she says, laughing. “I am the first Black Dutch that you meet.”

Luisette and her husband, Ed, are from Curaçao, a Dutch Caribbean island. He is the pastor of LaVid, one of several Park Community churches in the city.

For nearly two years, the couple have built a support network on the North Side for migrants to provide basic necessities, education and housing. Through these service programs, the Kraals have become a lifeline for hundreds of asylum-seekers who have been bussed or flown to Chicago, mostly from Venezuela via Texas since the start of the humanitarian crisis.

Luisette speaking with migrant in clothing store
Luisette Kraal, 59, speaks to a migrant at the New Neighbors free clothing store in Uptown on the North Side that she co-founded with her husband, Ed Kraal. The Kraals are originally from Curaçao, a Dutch Caribbean island. They speak several languages, including Dutch, English, Spanish and Papiamento. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

But like many asylum-seekers, the Kraals’ immigration status is fragile and uncertain. They’ve lived here for 12 years. For several years, they have remained in the U.S. on a religious visa, but it has expired and can’t be extended. And due to backlogs in the federal office that oversees immigration, there may not be other paths for them to remain here legally.

“That would be a travesty,” said Mary Shaaf, a mutual aid volunteer who works with Luisette. “Her dedication inspires many of us to keep going.”

Coca-Cola and Bibles

Luisette and Ed’s involvement with migrants began with passing out Coca-Cola and Bibles in a Rogers Park supermarket parking lot in Fall 2022.

“They were very hungry,” Luisette recalled. “So my husband bought rice and chicken for them at that moment. We asked them to come to church.”

A few days later, the couple spotted more migrants walking in shorts and slippers on Western Avenue in the Little India neighborhood near where LaVid was once located. That day, asylum-seekers packed their church.

Ed said the Bible has a lot to say about neighbors and how they need to be welcomed and loved.

“Listen to them and listen well, listen to their stories, listen to their needs,” Ed said.

While Ed focused mainly on pastoral work, Luisette continued her volunteer services. She was one of the first advocates to help asylum-seekers who were sent to Chicago Police stations a year ago. As the city struggled with shelter space, Luisette connected migrants to permanent housing.

“I do it by finding neighborhoods and parking my car somewhere and walking with them,” Luisette said, adding that she has helped more than 100 migrants find homes.

Most of them now live in affordable shared living spaces as part of a partnership with the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), a social services organization that owns a high-rise in the Uptown neighborhood.

The families pay the institute between $400 and $800 for a private space; the migrant residents share kitchens and showers. Luisette’s free clothing store and LaVid church are housed in the same building.

“We were looking for an organization that was working with the asylum-seekers and found Luisette and her husband and saw the good work that they were doing,” said Lesley Showers, executive director of ICA.

Supporting nuevos vecinos

Welcoming the new neighbors became an important mission for Luisette. She named the free clothing stores New Neighbors, or Nuevos Vecinos in Spanish.

“I arrived like every migrant, without clothes, with nothing,” Jhulieta Pino said in Spanish. “They told me about the church. I went one day and looked for clothes, and I liked how they treated me. They welcomed me, and I stayed.”

migrant wedding bouquet toss
The Kraals recently organized a wedding for 15 couples who migrated to Chicago and wanted to make their relationship official. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Pino now lives in one of ICA’s shared living spaces with her husband and daughter.

With the help of other volunteers and even migrants who live in the shared living units, Luisette has coordinated other services including English classes, homework assistance and grieving sessions. Recently, she and her husband organized 15 weddings.

But the support Luisette and her husband offer may be coming to an end.

The Kraals have maxed out extending their religious visas and are caught up in a bureaucratic quagmire because of a change in policy. With the influx of unaccompanied minors in recent years, the federal immigration office added a special immigrant juvenile status to the same category that religious workers use when applying for green cards or permanent residency status, said Sarah Flagel, an attorney with World Relief Chicagoland.

“It’s ended up having the unintended consequence where religious workers are now also facing a significant backlog because there’s been a significant increase in folks waiting in line in that category,” Flagel said.

That means Luisette and her husband must leave the country and wait abroad unless they can find a different way to stay lawfully. The couple recently applied for a special work visa but were denied; they are appealing that decision.

While they figure out what else to do or where to go, Luisette highlights the irony. Here they are, helping many migrants get through the challenges caused by this country’s complicated immigration system.

Now that same system is failing them.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers immigration for WBEZ. Follow her on X @AdrianaCardMag.