Just one bus carrying migrants arrived Friday in Chicago, no more or less than expected.
Stepping off it, the few dozen people mainly wearing T-shirts, braced themselves against the cold but were given blankets by city staff before being directed to a table where they were given winter clothes.
Afterwards, they waited outside at the city’s new “landing zone” at 800 S. Desplaines St. — near the site of Maxwell Street Market — before being taken to a police station.
Soon, however, the city is aiming to wind down its use of police stations and instead route all arrivals through a migrant intake center they plan to create with $30 million from the state, the newest part of the city plan for migrant arrivals.
Taking advantage of a recent lull in the number of arrivals, the city is making several changes to its migrant policy in hopes of emptying police stations.
The city has opened nine new shelters since mid-September, housing around 5,000 people.
Also, since a mid-October peak of 3,300 migrants living at police stations, that number has fallen to 1,200, according to the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, and six stations have been emptied. The number at O’Hare Airport has fallen from an early October peak of nearly 900 to 280 on Friday.
This is partly because of fewer arrivals, with about half as many buses coming to Chicago in November compared to October.
Nearly 26,000 migrants have been bused or flown to Chicago since August 2022. Around 12,500 remain in shelters.
Thousands have gotten housing through a state rental assistance program and others have found housing on their own.
The first step in the new plan is revamping how migrants are received at the “landing zone” for bus arrivals at Desplaines and Polk streets.
“Rogue buses” dropping off migrants elsewhere in the city or outside designated weekday business hours would be subject to “new regulatory tools,” the city recently said in a release.
“Earlier this fall there were buses that dropped people off after hours with no one to receive them, putting people in harm’s way,” the city said in a statement Sunday. “The ordinance will help prevent this by creating an organized and predictive system that enables the city to be better prepared and holds bus companies and the state of Texas accountable.”
Violators will be fined between $2,000 and $10,00. The city said each bus arriving since Nov. 18 that did not submit a permit application 48 hours in advance will be fined.
City officials said they are looking for a brick-and-mortar site near the landing zone for the intake center, where arrivals could get connected to legal services, medical care as well as transportation, for those moving beyond Chicago.
Taking tips from New York playbook
The intake center is similar to the site New York officials use for migrant arrivals, a historic Manhattan hotel — dubbed a “new Ellis Island” — that Chicago officials recently visited.
Other similar ideas the city of Chicago has implemented include a 60-day shelter policy and soon-to-be-built tent shelters.
Like in New York, migrants in Chicago can reapply for shelter at the intake center. Not long after those limits were first implemented in New York, over a hundred migrants began camping outside the center as they waited to reapply.
New York opened a heated tent shelter in mid-November, but some migrants there said cold drafts had left their children shivering, according to The City.
Chicago officials touring that site said they were impressed it had no curfews in place nor security aside from migrants carrying badges showing they stayed there.
Why fewer buses are coming
More than 400 buses have arrived since Title 42 ended in May — also when Johnson was inaugurated and Chicago awarded the 2024 Democratic National Convention. That’s almost four times as many as in the preceding nine months, according to data shared by the city.
Republican governors like Greg Abbott in Texas have been busing migrants to Democrat-led cities like Chicago to test the limits of so-called “sanctuary cities.”
Border crossings peaked in September, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, right before the U.S. announced it would resume deportation flights to Venezuela.
Migration experts say that policy is behind the drop in border crossings.
“Once the Biden administration began to implement removals, many more migrants are likely thinking twice about coming,” said Ariel Ruiz Soto, a senior policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute.
Next, all of Chicago’s unhoused
The city hasn’t named a location for the intake center, but staff from New Life Centers — the nonprofit arm of a network of local churches — are already out at the landing zone, working to resettle migrants.
Since May, the nonprofit has been helping the city move migrants from shelters into apartments provided a state rental assistance program and have provided tens of thousands in toiletry and clothing donations to shelters.
In mid-November, they began sending staff down to the landing zone to help city staff determine which migrants want to remain in Chicago and which want to move on.
Matt DeMateo, executive director for New Life, said they ensure all those leaving Chicago have a “legit” sponsor waiting for them. DeMateo said many more recent arrivals also now have a connection in Chicago they can stay with.
New Life has long been involved in providing for underserved communities, and DeMateo said some problems new arrivals face are the same problems regular Chicagoans have faced for years.
That has led to frustration among longtime city residents, but DeMateo finds hope in the outpouring of support many have shown for new migrants.
“The system and plans we’re creating now,” DeMateo said, “are allowing us to build what we’ll need to take care of all the unhoused in Chicago.”
Michael Loria is a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.