In this photo from November 2023, migrants are pictured moving out of the basement of United Lutheran Church in Oak Park.
In this photo from November 2023, migrants are pictured moving out of the basement of United Lutheran Church in Oak Park. The village is currently housing people at a local hotel and YMCA. "Some places have been very able to absorb the migrant population," said University of Chicago Professor Justin Marlowe. "Other places have really struggled." Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ
In this photo from November 2023, migrants are pictured moving out of the basement of United Lutheran Church in Oak Park.
In this photo from November 2023, migrants are pictured moving out of the basement of United Lutheran Church in Oak Park. The village is currently housing people at a local hotel and YMCA. "Some places have been very able to absorb the migrant population," said University of Chicago Professor Justin Marlowe. "Other places have really struggled." Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ

Ever since Chicago enacted fines for unannounced buses dropping off migrants in the city, some area suburbs have been receiving busloads of newcomers.

So how are places like Oak Park, Wilmette and Woodstock handling the influx of migrants? WBEZ’s Esther Yoon-Ji Kang sat down with a municipal finance expert for insight into how the suburbs are responding.

Justin Marlowe, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, also leads the school’s Center for Municipal Finance.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How have the Chicago suburbs been faring with the influx of migrants?

There’s been a lot of variation from place to place. Some places have been very able to absorb the migrant population, either on a temporary basis or even on a longer-term basis. Other places have really struggled. They don’t have that capacity, or they’ve found ways to move migrants to other communities that do. A lot of that variation reflects the fact that cities really aren’t designed to provide these kinds of services. They don’t have the fiscal tools, they’re not able to provide these kinds of services at scale.

Many suburbs historically have not been welcoming to various groups. Some developed as a result of white flight from cities. Do you think the lack of funds or infrastructure for migrants or other groups is by design?

You will absolutely find communities in the Chicagoland suburbs that have made a point not to build that kind of infrastructure — for any number of different reasons, but it’s clear that it was a conscious policy choice. At the other end of the continuum, you have seen deliberate choices on the part of city governments, especially even the small village governments, to make sure that those sorts of services exist — if only on a temporary basis for people who are arriving before then moving on to someplace else. And then in other [suburbs], as you see a combination of things. Some local and county governments have been very hospitable to the proliferation of faith-based and nonprofit organizations. It’s not necessarily a local government service per se, but local government not actively working against the nonprofit and faith-based communities. 

University of Chicago Professor Justin Marlowe
University of Chicago Professor Justin Marlowe Courtesy of the University of Chicago

Do the suburbs have a fiscal responsibility to build capacity for housing and services?

As a public finance person, we would probably think of it less in terms of obligations. If there was some definitive source saying to mayors, city managers and village council members that they can fully expect large numbers of asylum seekers arriving in their communities for years to come, it would be wise for any village or city to build that capacity — recognizing that it’s better to spend the dollars and build that capacity rather than do it on this ad hoc, temporary, very expensive basis. Any smart city council would see [those investments] as an opportunity: There probably are local businesses that could use the help, jobs that are going unfilled, businesses that could be started, or housing that needs to be rehabilitated.

Right now no one knows exactly how long this [influx of migrants] is going to go on or how many more people to expect. The push in D.C. by a lot of mayors and governors to try to change the federal government’s border policy is designed in some ways to provide that clarity. But at the moment, at least, there isn’t any of that clarity. I think it puts local leaders in a real bind. On the one hand, they know that they probably could or should be building that kind of capacity. But on the other hand, they don’t want to build that capacity only to then not have to use it.

Would a regional approach to resource allocation help?

You could make a strong case for that. One thing we’re seeing is migrant buses arriving in Kane County or arriving in the far western edge of Cook County, and then people finding their way up to Lake County because that’s a place in and around greater Waukegan that has a little more of a capacity. The word is getting out and people are finding their way up, [and] they’re [also] finding their way into the Southwest suburbs.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on X @estheryjkang.

In this photo from November 2023, migrants are pictured moving out of the basement of United Lutheran Church in Oak Park.
In this photo from November 2023, migrants are pictured moving out of the basement of United Lutheran Church in Oak Park. The village is currently housing people at a local hotel and YMCA. "Some places have been very able to absorb the migrant population," said University of Chicago Professor Justin Marlowe. "Other places have really struggled." Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ
In this photo from November 2023, migrants are pictured moving out of the basement of United Lutheran Church in Oak Park.
In this photo from November 2023, migrants are pictured moving out of the basement of United Lutheran Church in Oak Park. The village is currently housing people at a local hotel and YMCA. "Some places have been very able to absorb the migrant population," said University of Chicago Professor Justin Marlowe. "Other places have really struggled." Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ

Ever since Chicago enacted fines for unannounced buses dropping off migrants in the city, some area suburbs have been receiving busloads of newcomers.

So how are places like Oak Park, Wilmette and Woodstock handling the influx of migrants? WBEZ’s Esther Yoon-Ji Kang sat down with a municipal finance expert for insight into how the suburbs are responding.

Justin Marlowe, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, also leads the school’s Center for Municipal Finance.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How have the Chicago suburbs been faring with the influx of migrants?

There’s been a lot of variation from place to place. Some places have been very able to absorb the migrant population, either on a temporary basis or even on a longer-term basis. Other places have really struggled. They don’t have that capacity, or they’ve found ways to move migrants to other communities that do. A lot of that variation reflects the fact that cities really aren’t designed to provide these kinds of services. They don’t have the fiscal tools, they’re not able to provide these kinds of services at scale.

Many suburbs historically have not been welcoming to various groups. Some developed as a result of white flight from cities. Do you think the lack of funds or infrastructure for migrants or other groups is by design?

You will absolutely find communities in the Chicagoland suburbs that have made a point not to build that kind of infrastructure — for any number of different reasons, but it’s clear that it was a conscious policy choice. At the other end of the continuum, you have seen deliberate choices on the part of city governments, especially even the small village governments, to make sure that those sorts of services exist — if only on a temporary basis for people who are arriving before then moving on to someplace else. And then in other [suburbs], as you see a combination of things. Some local and county governments have been very hospitable to the proliferation of faith-based and nonprofit organizations. It’s not necessarily a local government service per se, but local government not actively working against the nonprofit and faith-based communities. 

University of Chicago Professor Justin Marlowe
University of Chicago Professor Justin Marlowe Courtesy of the University of Chicago

Do the suburbs have a fiscal responsibility to build capacity for housing and services?

As a public finance person, we would probably think of it less in terms of obligations. If there was some definitive source saying to mayors, city managers and village council members that they can fully expect large numbers of asylum seekers arriving in their communities for years to come, it would be wise for any village or city to build that capacity — recognizing that it’s better to spend the dollars and build that capacity rather than do it on this ad hoc, temporary, very expensive basis. Any smart city council would see [those investments] as an opportunity: There probably are local businesses that could use the help, jobs that are going unfilled, businesses that could be started, or housing that needs to be rehabilitated.

Right now no one knows exactly how long this [influx of migrants] is going to go on or how many more people to expect. The push in D.C. by a lot of mayors and governors to try to change the federal government’s border policy is designed in some ways to provide that clarity. But at the moment, at least, there isn’t any of that clarity. I think it puts local leaders in a real bind. On the one hand, they know that they probably could or should be building that kind of capacity. But on the other hand, they don’t want to build that capacity only to then not have to use it.

Would a regional approach to resource allocation help?

You could make a strong case for that. One thing we’re seeing is migrant buses arriving in Kane County or arriving in the far western edge of Cook County, and then people finding their way up to Lake County because that’s a place in and around greater Waukegan that has a little more of a capacity. The word is getting out and people are finding their way up, [and] they’re [also] finding their way into the Southwest suburbs.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on X @estheryjkang.