The writer is a contributing columnist, based in Chicago
The 27-year-old Venezuelan breaks into a double-dimpled grin when I ask whether he wants to stay in Chicago. He was among 3,700 migrants recently shipped from Texas to the “sanctuary city”, political pawns in a protest by the Texas Republican governor Greg Abbott against President Joe Biden’s immigration policy.
“Chicago is beautiful,’‘ says Jose, who declines to give his surname. A shock of curly, teal-dyed hair peeks out from beneath a hoodie raised against the Midwestern cold. It’s the only full sentence he can speak in English: but I don’t need Google translate to interpret the faces and body language of the other young Venezuelan men nodding vigorously in agreement.
I expected resentment and bitterness from the refugees, bussed 1,500 miles from Texas at almost no notice and with only snacks for sustenance, to live in homeless shelters, converted buildings and suburban budget hotels, in the middle of a Chicago winter.
Most didn’t choose to come here — many, including Jose, had a different US city in mind when they made the arduous journey through jungles and danger to cross the US border. They are here because the Republican governors of Florida and Texas put thousands of migrants on buses and planes to export them to liberal-run cities in the north — ostensibly to make the point of what it’s like to live with an influx of migrants.
But in random interviews, all the refugees I asked said they are now delighted they ended up in Chicago, and immigrant activists say this is a common point of view. As a “sanctuary city”, Chicago shields undocumented migrants from federal immigration enforcement and welcomes people regardless of immigration status. Immigrant activists praise the state of Illinois and the city itself, which are paying most of the cost of refugee lodging and food, for how they welcomed the migrants. Religious and community groups have provided an avalanche of donations, including winter clothing, school supplies and free legal advice.
“I wanted to get to Washington [DC] because I have family there. But they told me Chicago needed people here to work,” and that clinched it for him, says Jose. “We feel very welcome here.” He says they are better off here than in Texas.
But now comes the hard part, refugee organisations say: transitioning to more permanent housing and getting jobs. Illinois says it will provide rent assistance to some refugees, but only for three months with a possible three-month extension. Jobs are even trickier, says Kate Ramos of the National Immigrant Justice Centre in Chicago. Most of the Texas refugees were granted only 60 days of “parole”, or permission to live and work temporarily in the US. That’s now running out. And those seeking asylum — which itself can take years — must wait 150 days before they can even apply for work authorisation, and a further 10 months to get it. In the meantime, they are forced to work often illegal odd jobs at low pay.
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago has decades of experience resettling refugees in this city where one in five residents is an immigrant. But this is like nothing they’ve done before, says Sally Blount, president and chief executive. “We are just finishing with the Afghans and still working with the Ukrainians, but the volume of the Venezuelans and the fact that they are in limbo [immigration] status is a new experience.” It takes a year and costs $50,000 to resettle a family, she says. In January, her group will be looking for 800 rental units to resettle 2,000 asylum seekers.
Eddy Borrayo, president and CEO of Rincon Family Services, one of the non-profit groups working with asylum seekers bussed from Texas, says he thinks the future is bright for them in Chicago. “All our American forefathers came here with nothing: I was just two years old when I crossed the Rio Bravo and my mother was 20 . . . this is the first step on the path to the American dream, this is the price of the promised land,” he says.
Jose, with his ever-ready grin, hopes his American dream can come true, too — even in a city he never planned to visit.