For more than a year, Chicago has been grappling with the influx of Latin American migrants being sent from red states. Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration is currently making plans to house asylum seekers in tent cities.
Meanwhile, in Washington last week, President Joe Biden moved to grant Venezuelan migrants temporary protected status, speeding up the process for thousands of asylum seekers in Chicago to get work permits.
One local expert says the plight of Latin American migrants — and that of the city’s — are intertwined. Juan González is senior fellow at the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois Chicago.
He recently sat down with WBEZ’s Esther Yoon-Ji Kang to discuss U.S. foreign policy and what more Chicago and Washington should do for immigrants.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
In a recent speech, you said there’s a link between today’s migrant crisis right here in Chicago, and the decades of U.S. foreign policy. Tell us what has contributed to the influx of migrants, particularly from Venezuela?
The influx of migrants from Venezuela to the United States is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s only really happened in the last three or four years. But now Venezuelans have become the fastest growing group of the Latino community in the United States. The key thing that most people do not understand is that the United States has been engaged, in essence, in an economic war against Venezuela now for several years. And there were sanctions — not too many under the Obama administration, but definitely under the Trump administration — and they’ve continued under the Biden administration. The result has been an almost complete economic collapse of the country. Besides perhaps war, it is difficult to think of a tool of foreign policy that today causes more economic and humanitarian destruction than economic sanctions. For instance, Citgo petroleum, a major petroleum company in this country, is a Venezuelan-owned company. The Trump administration froze all the assets of Citgo. The company takes in about $24 billion in oil revenues in the United States. None of that money, though, can go to Venezuela, which is its owner.
The economic sanctions you mentioned were in response to the presidency of Nicolás Maduro. How should the U.S. have dealt with that? What other sanctions should it have explored?
Venezuela has been under leftist political leadership now since back in the late 1990s, when Hugo Chavez was president. During that time, Venezuela continued to trade with the United States, or oil continued to flow. Financing continued. And it was only in recent years after Chavez’s death, and the rise of Maduro, that our government began this much more concerted effort to destabilize the Venezuelan government. Now, there’s no question that there are political issues in terms of how the Maduro government has functioned vis-à-vis the rest of the Venezuelan people. But the United States took the extraordinary stand just a few years ago to recognize a separate government and got many European countries to go behind the supposed presidency of Juan Guaidó, who was a self declared president. That’s when the sanctions began. And now, we’re surprised that all of these Venezuelans suddenly appear in the United States because of the desperate condition of their own country? I think it makes perfect sense when you realize the history of what our government has been doing just over the last 5-10 years.
Outside of Venezuela, what U.S. foreign policies have caused migration from other countries in Latin America in the past?
If you look at the migrations of Latinos to the United States over the last 50 years, they come precisely from those countries that were most dominated or controlled by the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century: Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, South El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. Each of those countries had a long history of Americans going into their countries, investing, controlling their resources — often, the United States military intervening. All of these countries suffered, their resources were, in essence, pillaged, and the wealth of their countries were brought to this country. At the same time, the United States sought to create a cheap labor market, not only by recruiting Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, to come to work in the United States, but also many of the international companies moved workers from one Caribbean or Central American country to another.
What do these international issues have to do with the immediate challenges here at home — for example, affordable housing, better wages and health care?
First of all, you have the inability of the local governments to deal with what is essentially a federal problem: The Congress and the federal government, since 2006, have been unable to reach a new immigration policy for the United States. And because Congress is frozen, unable to make decisions, the local governments have to face how we’re going to deal with these constant problems. The other aspect is the narrative that’s created. For instance, as many Ukrainians roughly have come to the United States in the last couple of years, as have Venezuelans. There is no narrative in the media that the Ukrainians are creating a crisis. Why not? Because the government is quietly integrating them into the society, giving them work permits, giving them social benefits, and they’re in essence melting into the U.S. population. There are more Ukrainians that have come to Chicago in the last year than Venezuelans. But somehow we see the Venezuelans in the police precincts, we see them in the shelters, we see the government claiming it has no ability to deal with them.
What’s the elephant in the room there when you’re saying the Ukrainians are being treated differently from Venezuelans? Why the difference?
U.S. immigration policy has always been more political than it is humanitarian, and so there’s a political need to say that the Ukrainian migration is not a problem. There’s also a racial component. There is a populace in the country of white supremacists who have no problem bringing in more Ukrainians, but do have problems bringing in more Central Americans, Venezuelans, Asians and Haitians — because they fear the demographic transformation of the country.
The migrant crisis has already been a big challenge for Mayor Brandon Johnson in his first few months in office. Given your years of reporting on urban policy, what have you noticed about his approach? And what more can he do?
Mayor Johnson definitely has the right perspective and approach, and the words he is uttering are on target in terms of being compassionate to these migrants. Unfortunately, though, I still couldn’t don’t understand why there are people being housed in police precincts. Even New York, which has 110,000 migrants that have come into the city, is not putting the migrants in police precincts. They are finding a way, one way or another, to house them. So I think that his actions need to match a little bit more of his words, the resources have to be mobilized. And of course, the pressure put on Washington.
Last week, President Biden expanded temporary protections, including work permits to asylum seekers. What are some other steps the federal government can take?
The government could raise the cap on asylum seeking applications in the United States. President Trump took it down to about 20,000. Under Obama, it was 100,000. And that was not the historic high in the United States. So all you have to do is increase the legal caps on refugees and asylum seekers. And then also the key thing is, you must reshape immigration policy to allow people into the country from those countries that most are applying. China, the Philippines, and Mexico and Central America are the main countries from which people are seeking to come to the United States, yet they are limited in the number of permanent resident visas that can be granted. [We cannot] have this system that’s been in place since 1965, of essentially every country in the world having the same cap.
That sounds simple enough. But how realistic is that with our gridlocked Congress?
Well, that’s the problem — that there are forces in Congress that are just trying to delay, delay, delay the inevitable. Inevitably, the business community understands the need for comprehensive and rational immigration reform. But there’s a populist right-wing sector in American society that keeps clinging to the notion of America as it used to be, not the America that it is becoming.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on X @estheryjkang.
This conversation is part of The Democracy Solutions Project — a collaboration among WBEZ, The Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government. We’re examining the critical issues facing our democracy and the reforms needed to strengthen it in the run-up to the 2024 elections.