Early Thursday morning, bleary-eyed volunteers and city staffers trickled in through the lobby of the North Park Village Nature Center administration building on Chicago’s far North Side. Many brought coffee and donned T-shirts emblazoned with the names of their organizations.
Some had been up late the night before, when dozens of migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border arrived at Union Station after being sent away by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on charter buses paid for by the state.
On Thursday, city workers and volunteers brought food, clothes and toys, medical supplies, laptops and other items they needed to assist the 75 asylum seekers, who had spent the night at a Salvation Army shelter.
“We’re ready,” said Marie Jochum, a senior director of special projects at Catholic Charities. “We’re waiting to be a smiling face, to be that warm, hospitable welcome and say, ‘We’re so glad you’re here in Chicago.’”
Jochum said three priorities for the day were to connect migrants with family members elsewhere in the U.S., find housing for individuals and provide legal services to help them process their immigration cases.
“What we’re currently focusing on is intake, making sure that we know exactly what it is that these individuals need,” said Joe Dutra, director of public affairs for Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services.
At around 9 a.m., volunteers gathered on the steps of the brick building. Not long after, two Chicago Transit Authority buses pulled up, bringing the migrants from their temporary shelter.
Volunteers waved at the families on the bus; parents and kids, wearing surgical masks and looking tired, waved back. Soon, to applause and shouts of “bienvenidos” from the volunteers, the migrants stepped off the bus and approached the building. Some young children were carried by their parents; older ones clutched folders and bags.
As families spent the next couple of hours filling out forms, undergoing medical exams and learning about their rights, those who were there to help the migrants cycled in and out of the building, swapping shifts and bringing in more food and supplies. Staff from the National Immigrant Justice Center provided legal help, and clergy came by to pray with migrants.
Areli Lopez, a care manager with Esperanza Health Centers, said doctors diagnosed ear infections and colds, even sending one child who had trouble breathing to the emergency room.
“[The migrants] did have to go through forests and jungles and things like that,” Lopez said. “I did cry a couple of times because I am Latina, and seeing my community having been through all of that, and [thinking of] my parents who also came as immigrants here … I’m just happy that I was here but also sad just seeing them have to go through this and having to leave their homes.”
Luciana Diaz, a volunteer translator who runs a nonprofit called Panas en Chicago (“Buddies in Chicago”), said many of the migrants hope to make the city their permanent home.
“They say everybody’s really friendly with them and helped them,” said Diaz, who is from Venezuela, like most of the migrants who arrived in Chicago this week.
After the first set of buses took the families back to the temporary shelter, two more CTA buses arrived, this time carrying a few dozen men. They, too, were greeted by clapping and cheering volunteers.
As the migrants went through the intake process, the mayor’s office called a press conference at a Salvation Army site nearby.
There, Mayor Lori Lightfoot praised her team, the county, the state and community-based organizations for mobilizing quickly to respond to the emergency.
She had choice words for Abbott, whose actions Lightfoot said robbed the migrants of the “respect they deserve and the due process our laws require.”
She continued, “These are human beings — moms and dads, young children, elders — who deserve our respect and dignity. They’re not cargo. They’re not chattel.”
Lightfoot said she expects to see more migrants arrive in Chicago. Abbott himself tweeted this week that he will continue to bus migrants to sanctuary cities “until [President Biden] secures the border.”
Lightfoot said the city’s response to Abbott’s “cheap political stunt” is “not something that we budgeted for, but it’s something we must do.”
She added that longer-term housing and other arrangements will depend on the migrants’ individual plans – whether they will move to other cities or stay in Chicago. She also said she is confident the philanthropic community would step up if needed, as it did during the pandemic.
At the press conference, Lightfoot was joined by many of the same people who had spent the morning welcoming the migrants.
Ere Rendón, vice president of immigrant justice at The Resurrection Project, was one of them.
“I myself crossed the border when I was 4 years old,” Rendón told the crowd. “Back in 1990, my family also arrived without anything.”
Rendón said Chicago, Cook County and Illinois are setting an example for how to welcome immigrants.
“I just want to thank you all from the bottom of my heart,” Rendón said. “Especially thank you all from the bottom of my 4-year-old heart.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.