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Chicago is struggling to house migrants sent out of state by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When Texas Governor Greg Abbott started busing migrants out of his state in the summer of 2022, the border crisis came home to some of the country's largest cities, including Chicago, where now Texas not only sends buses, but also private charter planes with migrants. For Chicago and other cities, it has meant struggling with ways to provide housing for tens of thousands, mostly Venezuelans, who hope to find a new home. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang of member station WBEZ reports.

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ESTHER YOON-JI KANG, BYLINE: On a frigid, drizzly day in early December, construction crews were hard at work erecting giant tents on a vacant lot on Chicago's southwest side. There were posters stapled to a wooden fence that enveloped the massive site, a former industrial lot. They read, this land is contaminated, and, save our community. This site was to be a temporary home for thousands of Venezuelan migrants who would live in winterized tents. But the state of Illinois nixed the plan after contaminants were found in the soil. It's been a huge challenge for Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, elected back in April.

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BRANDON JOHNSON: It's an international crisis that I inherited.

KANG: For months, Texas sent a daily influx of buses and in December sent a charter plane after Chicago started cracking down on buses for dropping off migrants outside of approved hours or locations. The numbers would reach more than 26,000 in 2023. It's been a struggle as Chicago, along with New York, Denver, Los Angeles and other cities, has worked to provide shelter and services for the new arrivals. Throughout the summer and fall, thousands lived in some unlikely places, like at O'Hare International Airport and at police stations. Here's Mayor Johnson again.

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JOHNSON: Look, we have people sleeping on floors and outside. Our police districts have been overwhelmed since the very beginning of this mission.

KANG: This mission has cost Chicago hundreds of millions of dollars. The city has since cleared the police stations, but there are now reports of illnesses and even the death of a child at a shelter. Chicago's resources have been stretched thin, along with the patience of many of its residents.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: We say no.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: We say no.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: We say no.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: We say no.

KANG: Protests cropped up at sites that were considered for housing migrants, and residents who live in disinvested neighborhoods and feel they've been overlooked have spoken up at contentious city council meetings.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Our mayor went to fight for billions of dollars for migrants. Who's going to fight for monies for the Black community?

KANG: Other protesters have included people spouting anti-immigrant sentiments and also long-time undocumented residents wanting the same benefits, like work permits, that were given to Venezuelans by the Biden administration. Johnson, who prides himself on being a coalition builder, has asked for understanding

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JOHNSON: Chicago, just know that as frustrating as this is right now, your brother's is working hard every single day. International policy, local ordinances and everything else in between.

KANG: Over the past few months, he's gotten some offers to help. One neighboring suburb is taking in about 160 migrants for a limited time. Churches have stepped up to provide housing. And the city of St. Louis is hoping to resettle hundreds, if not thousands, of Venezuelans who have work permits. Karlos Ramirez is vice president of Latino outreach for the International Institute of St. Louis. In October, he drove up to Chicago's City Hall to make a pitch for migrants to resettle in his town.

KARLOS RAMIREZ: It could be the potential for a great relationship between both cities.

KANG: Ramirez says St. Louis' population and its workforce have been declining, and bringing migrants from Chicago could be good for everyone.

RAMIREZ: And if the people are going to be in a better place, St. Louis is going to be in a better place and Chicago is going to be a better place, I think everybody wins.

KANG: His group is working with Chicago officials to recruit migrants who have work authorization and to secure as much housing in St. Louis as possible. Meanwhile, both Chicago and Illinois are asking the feds for more help, especially with the Democratic National Convention taking place here in 2024. Officials are looking to get a handle on the migrant crisis before all eyes are on the Windy City.

For NPR News, I'm Esther Yoon-Ji Kang in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on the Race, Class and Communities desk. Previously, she was the communications manager for the University of Chicago Institute of Politics (IOP). Before her work with the IOP, Esther was an editor at Chicago magazine, where she reported, wrote, edited, photographed, designed and produced award-winning stories for the website and print magazine. Prior to Chicago magazine, she worked as a breaking news producer for chicagotribune.com, latimes.com and other Tribune Company news sites. Aside from her work on the Web, Esther has covered the Chicago Public Schools and juvenile court beats and has written for various publications. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northwestern University and has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in the journalism school.