Backlash to arriving migrants grows in Latino community as new shelter opens in Chicago

CHICAGO — A new shelter opened in Pilsen Tuesday amid growing backlash from some in the Latino community who feel that immigration reform and the neighborhood’s recent property tax hike has taken a back seat to the migrant crisis.

Just weeks after a volunteer-run shelter in Pilsen was forced to close because of a lack of funding and volunteer support, the new migrant shelter, now operated by the city, quietly opened in an empty warehouse near Cermak Road and Halsted Street. Around 4 p.m., traffic stopped on Halsted as a yellow school bus filled migrants pulled into the parking lot behind the warehouse-turned shelter.

News of the shelter was met with mixed reaction from about 150 residents Monday night at a meeting at Benito Juarez Community Academy, where city officials advocated for the shelter as they scramble to house a surging number of migrants arriving from the southern border.

The meeting was just the latest sign of tensions boiling over across as city officials predict that Chicago may soon see as many as 20 to 25 buses of migrants arrive a day. More than 15,000 migrants have arrived in the city since August 2022 and that number is expected to double in the next several weeks, according to officials.

This week, Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd, wrote a letter to constituents calling for the closure of the largest migrant shelter in the city, the Inn of Chicago that is blocks away from the Magnificent Mile. Though the shelter at 162 E. Ohio St. is in the neighboring 42nd Ward, Hopkins, the mayor’s handpicked public safety committee chair, said he was nonetheless speaking up because “the situation has not improved” since he raised concerns surrounding narcotics sales, public intoxication and blocked pedestrian passageways in July.

In a statement to the Tribune, Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, said he agreed with his colleague.

“The ‘experiment’ of housing 1,500 migrants at the Inn of Chicago has been an abject failure. The conditions there are deplorable and the property is not safe for the migrant families living there who are co-mingled with hundreds of single, young adult males,” he said in an email to the Tribune. “Not only do I worry for the health and welfare of these young migrant families — I also worry for the safety of my constituents and thousands of tourists and visitors who come to the area every day.”

Across the city, Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th, also expressed discontent as the city plans to open a shelter in Galewood’s Amundsen Park and scheduled a meeting Tuesday at the park, inviting residents to voice their opinions.

“It takes away valuable neighborhood resources from a community that, in part, has been disinvested in for decades,” he said in the letter.

While some speakers preached unity and empathy for the new arrivals on Monday in Pilsen, others urged city officials to advocate for the millions of other immigrants in the country without legal permission that have been waiting for an immigration reform for decades. Many residents said they felt they were being shortchanged as they face soaring property taxes, leading to more displacement in the gentrifying area and getting no assistance or answers from the city.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, said that the conversation and work about the hike on property taxes is ongoing.

Reconozco que hay un problema de impuestos,” Sigcho-Lopez responded to the crowd that interrupted his introduction to the meeting that was held in Spanish and English. “I acknowledge that there are issues with property taxes.”

But that issue, Sigcho-Lopez said, shouldn’t stop the Pilsen community from helping the asylum-seekers currently forced to sleep in police stations or on the streets. Almost 3,000 migrants are sleeping on the floors of the city’s police stations and airports, Deputy Immigration Mayor Beatriz Ponce de León said. The new shelter is expected to house 400 migrants with families.

“We can’t have children living in police stations and dying in front of us,” said Sigcho-Lopez in Spanish.

But the frustration from some in the crowd was louder.

“That’s enough, we know about everything that they’re getting,” yelled Esmerelda Cargoca in Spanish.

Cargoca, questioned the amount of financial support that the migrants are receiving, saying that when she and her family arrived in the United States, they had to make the transition on their own.

But she also took the microphone to say that even after she requested support from the city during the pandemic, she did not get it.

“I lost my store during the pandemic and even after I asked for help I couldn’t get it, so I ask: Where is that help for people like myself?” she asked followed by applause from the auditorium.

Like Cargoca, 48, a number of attendees complained about the system the city has created to provide not only shelter, but also food and health care for the new arrivals, alleging that it discourages them from finding jobs or from leaving the shelter.

“People are afraid to say what they really feel,” said Romulo Peralta, who drove from Jefferson Park to the meeting. He only speaks Spanish, so he wanted to attend the meeting where he would be heard, he said. Peralta said he is an economist from Peru and the math is not making sense “because we are paying for all of this and many refuse to go out and just find a job.”

Last month, President Joe Biden announced that he was granting temporary legal status and work permits to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants who have crossed into the U.S., but advocates cautioned the process would take months to trickle down to the migrants it will benefit.

Amid the discord, a Argenis Davila, 45, stood out as he grabbed the microphone. He was one of the migrants that has arrived in the city in the last year and is now a resident of the Pilsen area.

“Thanks to the volunteers’ help, I was able to get on my two feet, find a job, an apartment and now my children go to these schools,” he said in Spanish.

Davila said he arrived in Chicago from Venezuela five months ago and lived at the volunteer-run shelter Todos Para Todos in Pilsen until he was able to find an apartment.

His two younger sons now attend Benito Juarez high school and Solorio Academy High School while he works at a mushroom factory. Davila said he attended the meeting after he was invited by some of the volunteers to show the residents that “it is possible (to be independent).”

He said the new shelter “will hopefully give other Venezuelans the opportunity to start anew.”

“But we’re paying for it,” Rosa Bellido responded while most of the crowd clapped for Davila.

Davila thanked the crowd and left before the meeting ended.

Others at the meeting also spoke out in support of the new shelter.

Jose Alcala, of the Labor Council of Latin American Advancement, said he wanted to see community institutions such as churches open their doors to migrants and particularly children, whom he fears will suffer in the bitter Chicago winter.

“We need to get them in before the cold gets here,” he said.

Longtime Pilsen resident the Rev. Emma Lozano, of Lincoln United Methodist Church, said Chicago must stay open to asylum-seekers.

”What is the alternative, be a not-welcoming city? That’s wrong,” she said. But Lozano also acknowledged that millions of people have lived in the United States for years without the work permits sought by new arrivals and called on authorities to assist them too.

”Eleven million have been living here for decades without work permits,” she said. We’re your neighbors, we’ve been here forever and we don’t have those workers’ permits.”

Outside the auditorium, Elvira Arellano, an activist and advocate for the immigrant community passed out flyers announcing a march on Oct. 12, in which the community will gather to push city and state officials to pressure the federal government for an immigration reform that would benefit those newcomers, but also the more 11 million immigrants in the country without legal permission.


(Chicago Tribune’s Nell Salzman and Alice Yin contributed.)