As the city of Chicago scrambles to shelter and find solutions for thousands of migrants who need housing and jobs, groups in St. Louis are looking to relocate some of those asylum-seekers to their town, modeling the program after similar ones it did with Afghan refugees in recent years.
The nonprofit International Institute of St. Louis is partnering with unions and philanthropic leaders to resettle hundreds — if not thousands — of Latin American migrants in their city. The goal is to bolster St. Louis’s workforce and stem its population decline.
“It could be the potential for a great relationship between both cities,” said Karlos Ramirez, vice president of Latino outreach for the International Institute. “If the [migrants] are going to be in a better place, St. Louis is going to be in a better place, and Chicago is going to be in a better place, I think everybody wins.”
The program would be funded primarily by private donors. It would provide housing for up to three months, cell phones, apprenticeship programs and job placement by local unions, and assistance from immigration lawyers, Ramirez said.
He added that St. Louis officials are “very much in line and on board with this initiative,” pointing to Mayor Tishaura Jones recently creating an Office of New Americans.
Ramirez drove to Chicago over the weekend to assess the migrants’ needs. He said he met with Chicago’s Deputy Mayor of Immigrant, Migrant and Refugee Rights Beatriz Ponce De León on Monday at City Hall.
Mayor Brandon Johnson’s spokesperson did not respond to WBEZ’s request for an interview with De León, who was leading a small delegation of officials visiting the Texas southern border Tuesday. Since August 2022, thousands of migrants, mostly from Venezuela, have arrived in Chicago. Many families are living temporarily at police stations and airports. The city estimates $343.7 million could be spent on migrants by the end of the year, even as more buses continue to arrive.
Ramirez said the next steps to relocate migrants to St. Louis are sharing information with partner organizations and creating a one-page flier to be circulated to migrants by Chicago agencies. He said his organization will seek proper documentation from asylum-seekers through the Biden parolee program, which last month sped up work visas for nearly 500,000 migrants in the U.S.
Ramirez said his group and Chicago officials are “being cautious and strategically intentional. I want to be careful not to all of a sudden get an onslaught of homeless [migrants] from Chicago and then create a homeless situation in St. Louis.”
The International Institute currently has beds and apartments ready for the first eight migrants to arrive immediately, Ramirez said. He said while initially the plan was to resettle people from different U.S. cities, he is leaning toward focusing on Chicago because of the large numbers of migrants here and with the city’s capacity stretched thin.
The Latino Outreach Initiative is modeled after a similar program in recent years to bring Afghan refugees to St. Louis.
Jerry Schlichter, a prominent attorney and civic leader there, led those efforts after seeing how the Bosnian resettlement to St. Louis in the 1990s bolstered the population and created a vibrant community. Two years ago, Schlichter started a program to bring Afghans to his city; today, nearly 2,000 Afghan refugees have resettled there, found jobs and started businesses and cultural organizations, he said.
Now, he hopes to do the same with Latin American immigrants. He would not say how much he and others have donated to the program but called the amount “substantial.”
Schlichter said like in many cities, St. Louis’s businesses and labor unions are experiencing a workforce shortage.
“There’s a tremendous need for employees,” Schlichter said, adding that construction companies, grocery chains, restaurants and manufacturing plants have all struggled to find workers — especially with the region’s population remaining stagnant.
“If you look around the country at cities that are growing, it’s primarily from immigrants and children of immigrants,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to build here — to increase our population, make a more vibrant St. Louis and a more diverse St. Louis, which is a benefit for everyone.”
An earlier version of this story said more than 500,000 migrants in the Biden parolee program.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on X @estheryjkang.