As soon as reports surfaced Thursday that three U.S. citizen children were being detained by federal officials at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, immigration activists deployed a “rapid response team” to help the family.
Within hours, immigration activists had notified elected officials, alerted the news media and assembled at O’Hare to rally for the release of the three girls, who were being held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials shortly after their arrival from Mexico.
The girls were returning home, accompanied by an adult relative, a Mexican national, for whom CBP agents would not authorize entry. The girls’ parents are undocumented.
In this instance, CBP officials said they had two options for dealing with unaccompanied U.S. citizen children, release them to a legal guardian or to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
The girls’ parents were afraid of being detained and placed in deportation proceedings, if they came to the airport. Silvia, the girls’ mother, reached out to the Mexican Consulate and a rapid response team got involved with the case. Silvia would not share her last name because she is undocumented.
“CBP has so much discretion, and it lacks transparency,” said Mony Ruiz-Velasco, executive director of the PASO West Suburban Action Project. “In these cases, we bring out our rapid response teams as well as mobilize communities, mobilize the media to be able to help add pressure so that Customs and Border Protection can feel they are being watched, as well.”
Ruiz-Velasco said she got a notarized letter from Silvia and presented it to CBP officials around noon. The letter was meant to serve as authorization for the children to be released to Ruiz-Velasco, but agency officials said the signature could not be authenticated.
Meanwhile, protesters from Rogers Park, Albany Park and other neighborhoods started arriving at the airport’s international terminal in support of the family. They created signs that read, “Don’t make children hostages” and “Release the children now.”
Soon local elected leaders started getting involved. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker called to offer support. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky arrived at the airport to assess the situation. She met with CBP officials and then accompanied Silvia to pick up the girls late Thursday afternoon.
Reporters also gathered at the airport and rushed immigration lawyers, representatives from the Mexican Consulate, Schakowsky and Silvia to get updates of the situation and to record their comments.
Ruiz-Velasco said getting the girls released without their mother being detained couldn’t have happened without the work and support of the rapid response team.
“We wouldn’t have had the success we did,” she said.
Activists said there are eight rapid response teams in Chicago. Those teams have been readied in recent weeks to respond to mass arrests by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents promised by President Donald Trump.
Since 2017, nearly 150 people have been trained to be part of those teams, said Rey Wences, an activist with Organized Communities Against Deportation.
And those teams make a difference, said Chicago Alderman Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward, who started a rapid response team in his ward. He calls them “ICE breakers.”
“If you’re in Chicago, you are not only welcomed, but you are a part of our family,” he said.
María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio