Patchwork aid system and uncertain funding leave thousands of migrants in limbo

By Andrew Adams Capitol News Illinois

Pictured is the first building many migrants step into when they arrive in Chicago, the city’s “landing zone” facility. It’s nearly empty after bus transports from Texas were paused and migrants were moved to the city’s main library during a winter storm with dangerously low temperatures. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Andrew Adams)

As Illinois faced sub-zero wind chills, thousands of recently arrived migrants are sleeping in precarious situations throughout Chicago and its suburbs — overcrowded shelters, police stations, former convenience stores, library basements and spare rooms in churches, to name a few.

Many of these recent arrivals have come to the state with few possessions and in need of food and shelter, which those cities and the state have scrambled to provide amid a lack of federal coordination.

Since migrants began arriving — many bused or flown from Texas and other southern U.S. border states since August 2022 — the state has already allocated more than $500 million to set up emergency services, shelters and other supports. So far, more than 34,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago from Texas alone, though many have since moved onto other states where they’ve been connected with family.

In November, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced another $160 million would be reappropriated from the Illinois Department of Human Services’ budget to create more shelter sites overseen by the city of Chicago, provide direct aid and case management services and to launch an intake center.

But even that plan — dubbed by Pritzker as “welcome, shelter, independence” — has not kept pace with the influx of arrivals to Illinois. Now, as lawmakers return to Springfield for their spring legislative session, the question of what to do next hangs heavy in the halls of the state Capitol, with talks of new funding so far not yielding any specific proposals.

“We know this unprecedented humanitarian crisis is going to be critical to discussions on budget and other important issues this session,” House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch said in a statement Tuesday, Jan. 16, one day before announcing a nine-member working group to concentrate on the migrant issue.

“We’re going to keep all options on the table and have frank conversations with our caucus, the Senate president, Governor Pritzker, and other stakeholders,” Welch added.

The more than 34,000 migrants who’ve been bused or flown to Illinois by order of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott represents just a portion of the true number of migrants that arrived in Illinois over that time as the country’s southern border faces an influx of hundreds of thousands of people each month. Migrants are fleeing unstable political regimes and economic chaos in south and central American and Carribean nations like Venezuela, Honduras, Cuba and Haiti.

Last week, Pritzker sent a letter to Abbott requesting he stop sending buses at least while Chicago experienced a deep freeze over the weekend and into this week. While Abbott publicly denied the request, Chicago reported that as of Tuesday afternoon, no new buses had arrived since Pritzker sent the letter.

State funding so far

So far, more than half a billion dollars has been allocated to address the influx of migrants, according to the governor’s office. That includes $115 million in direct funding to the city of Chicago.

Sometime this month, the state is slated to open a key piece of the $160 million spending plan announced in November: the intake center designed to welcome migrants, provide immediate triage and help them find a more permanent home.

It’s going to be located at the same place as Chicago’s “landing zone” facility west of Chicago’s downtown neighborhood, where bus companies are instructed to drop migrants.

The landing zone, where migrants have slept in heated tents and on Chicago city buses to avoid the cold, was cleared out on Monday and the migrants that were there were taken to Chicago’s Harold Washington Library as part of the city’s “severe cold emergency operation plan.”

By Tuesday, the city reported no migrants at the site and 47 remaining at the library.

The state has also provided funds directly to local governments to aid migrants seeking legal assistance, health care and shelter. In September, the governor announced a $42.5 million grant program for municipalities around the state to fund aid to migrants who are seeking asylum in the U.S.

So far, five municipalities have received funding: the city of Chicago with the largest share of $30.25 million, along with suburban Lake County, Elgin, Oak Park and downstate Urbana.

On Tuesday, the governor announced another $11 million for cities outside of Chicago that are also caring for migrants. The money is from the $160 million in spending announced in November.

Oak Park, a suburb just west of Chicago, received $400,000 through this program. It’s used that money, alongside $650,000 in leftover federal American Rescue Plan Act pandemic relief money and $350,000 from Cook County, to provide legal assistance and shelter to migrants.

But the Oak Park aid program’s funding runs out on Feb. 29, at which point the future for the roughly 160 migrants in the suburb — and any arrivals thereafter — becomes somewhat unclear.

“The plan is that migrants are working with their caseworkers to make plans about what comes next,” village spokesperson Dan Yopchick told Capitol News Illinois.

With a near total lack of coordination at the federal level, advocates have looked to the state to fill in some financial and administrative gaps.

The Welcome to Illinois Coalition, a group of nonprofits and advocacy groups, has asked the state to provide more funding for long-term housing assistance and legal education. They’ve also called for an expansion of the Health Benefits for Immigrant Adults program, which provides state-subsidized health care to some noncitizen residents who are in Illinois without legal permission — a group separate from many of the migrants, who are here seeking asylum in the country.

But the state’s finances for the next fiscal year remain uncertain, and Pritzker has already paused enrollment in the program and expressed doubt about any expansion sought by advocates.

The current fiscal year, which ends June 30, is projected to end with a $1.4 billion surplus — roughly 2.8 percent of the overall budget — according to the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget. But next year’s budget is projected to have an $891 million deficit.

Possible action in Springfield

On Wednesday, Welch announced what is likely to turn into a key part of the legislative response to the migrant crisis: a “working group” of nine House lawmakers — all Democrats — led by Rep. Jennfier Gong-Gershowitz, D-Glenview.

The group is mostly made up of Chicago-area lawmakers, although it also includes Rep. Dave Vella, D-Rockford, whose hometown saw a plane of migrants arrive with little warning on New Year’s Eve, and Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, who oversees the House’s budget-drafting process.

Republicans in Springfield, meanwhile, have called for a stricter state stance toward immigration in general.

On Tuesday, a group of four conservative lawmakers announced they were filing legislation that would repeal portions of the TRUST Act, a 2017 state law that bars local law enforcement agencies from participating in federal immigration enforcement, such as by working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents or by detaining people based on their immigration status.

“Repealing the TRUST Act is absolutely required to solve the Illinois illegal immigration crisis and it’s the right thing to do for the citizens of this state,” Rep. John Cabello, R-Machesney Park, said in a statement.

Individuals seeking asylum, like many of the recently arrived migrants, are generally not subject to deportation through Immigrations and Customs Enforcement action.

Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Cherry Valley, also on Tuesday criticized the management of two state programs that offer Medicaid-style benefits to some noncitizen residents of Illinois.

These programs faced sharp criticism from the right in 2023 when they exceeded expected costs by hundreds of millions of dollars and again from the left when the governor’s administration instituted cost-saving measures that limited the number of people able to enroll in benefits.

“Our focus as a state should be on taking care of our own citizens, especially the most vulnerable, before opening our doors to undocumented individuals from countries all over the world,” Syverson said.

The Health Benefits for Immigrant Adults and Health Benefits for Immigrant Seniors programs, which Syverson proposed cutting back, are designed for people who don’t have legal permission to be in the country and some others. Asylum seekers generally don’t qualify for those programs but do qualify for some federal benefits.

These proposals are unlikely to receive much traction in Springfield, as they are unpopular with Democrats, who hold supermajorities in both legislative chambers and every statewide office.

Possible paths forward

For Pritzker, part of the way to help migrants is by providing the opportunity to work.

In the fall, Pritzker pushed the Biden administration to expand migrants’ ability to receive temporary protected status, or TPS, to include those coming from Venezuela, allowing them to legally work in the U.S. But days after saying he was “very pleased” with a related change announced by the administration, Pritzker pushed the White House again to remove fees for applying for TPS applications, which can cost hundreds of dollars.

“The high cost of applying for TPS is yet another obstacle for the population we have in Illinois,” Pritzker wrote in an October letter to Biden.

The Biden administration has fast-tracked some work authorizations, particularly for people who crossed the border using the CBP One mobile app.

But Pritzker’s request to waive fees, alongside his call for the administration to name a single person or office to coordinate migrant relocation, has so far gone unfulfilled.

Some advocates, however, said reforming work authorization rules will only go so far.

This includes Erendira Rendon, the vice president of immigrant justice with The Resurrection Project, a nonprofit group that receives state funding to provide legal education to recent immigrants as well as a member organization of the Welcome to Illinois Coalition.

She said the focus on work authorization leaves out many who don’t qualify. She said that fewer than 5,000 of the migrants in Chicago shelters qualify for work authorization through TPS or other federal programs.

“There has never been a system to welcome immigrants,” Rendon said. “That doesn’t exist.”

She said the state could better serve many of the migrants by connecting them to existing immigrant communities and to others who lack work permits so that they can learn how to navigate the country they now find themselves in.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.