Top Stories of 2023: Migrants find their way to Lake County; service organizations struggle to keep up with demand

Asylum-seeking migrants have been arriving in Chicago and the collar counties throughout the year. Advocates say the families have come in search of something they lacked in their home countries: safety and stability.

Amid a recent uptick in arrivals, many villages and cities outside of Cook County have started to see their Metra station as a destination for the buses coming from the southern border.

The steady stream of new arrivals locally and throughout the metro region made immigration and migrants one of the Lake County New-Sun’s top stories of 2023.

For the migrant families who come to Lake County, nonprofit organizations have been the main resource for the new arrivals for information about public benefits, immigration and legal assistance, mental and medical health resources and more.

But the service organizations are struggling to keep up with the demand as more new families arrive. The nonprofits — along with mayors across the nation — are asking for more federal funding to continue supporting the steady stream for newcomers.

Many make their way to Lake County communities after being routed through Chicago check points because they have family or friends to live with, said Dulce Ortiz, executive director of Mano a Mano Family Resource Center in Round Lake Park.

This year, Mano a Mano served over 600 migrant families, many women and children from Central and South America and Ukraine. The organization helps people access public benefits for Medicaid, food assistance, housing applications, provides rental and legal assistance and connects people with other community resources.

“They really just want to work and they want to be able to provide and, they just don’t want to be a burden to the government,” Dulce said. “We kept hearing that over and over.”

To manage the new arrivals, Lake County officials coordinate with municipalities, townships and local partners. The county has distributed state funding to some service organizations.

In November, the county dispersed $1 million from the state to Mano a Mano, HACES and the North Suburban Legal Aid Clinic. The three organizations helped nearly 2,000 asylum-seekers over the past year, said Brenda O’Connell, the county’s community development administrator, last month.

With the $500,000 in funding, Mano a Mano will provide housing assistance grants to about 55 migrant families for six months. Ortiz said this has been one of the biggest roadblocks in families becoming self-sufficient.

Esteban Carbajal, supervising attorney for the immigration practice at the North Suburban Legal Aid Clinic said “it’s been a struggle to meet the demand.”

“The recent arrivals sometimes come in surges,” Carbajal said. “Despite the myriad of challenges that we’re facing with that situation, the clinic has remained steadfast in its commitment to providing low income and at risk individuals, families with access to free legal services.”

With some of the grant funds from the county, the suburban legal clinic was able to hire new staff in their immigration practice to meet the growing demand. In the near future, the clinic hopes to hire a Spanish speaking legal assistant to add to the number of employees who speak Spanish.

Ortiz said Mano a Mano also hopes to hire an additional legal assistant with the state funding.

To meet the growing demand for services, North Suburban Legal Aid provided off-site informational sessions in the community at libraries and schools. Carbajal said these clinics include “know your rights information” and what types of immigration forms are available.

There can be challenges during the visa application process. Carbajal said the law can be too restrictive and limits who qualifies for relief.

“Some individuals are fleeing very traumatic situations, but unfortunately their personal circumstances just don’t fit the requirements for any type of relief,” Carbajal said. “Not being able to help them can be very difficult.”

Carbajal said the clinic has filed a few asylum applications for Venezuelan and Central American arrivals, but the application may take several years to be adjudicated. The clinic has seen success in obtaining asylum status for earlier arrivals from Afghanistan and temporary protected status for Ukrainians.

To help more people, Ortiz believes the federal government needs to provide more fiscal support to the municipalities and organizations who are on the front lines with migrant families.

“Municipalities, the state, they’re doing everything to the best of their abilities, but more funding is needed to be able to make sure that these families are properly taken care of,” Ortiz said. “There just needs to be a wider effort in providing the resources to cities that are receiving new arrivals.”

“At this point in time we’re not going to see any slowdown or any stuffing of these buses coming to the city,” Ortiz said.