What sanctuary cities cannot do for a drastic uptick of asylum seekers

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As Chicago’s brand-new mayor, Brandon Johnson signed his first series of executive orders this week, including one that establishes a Deputy Mayor for Immigrant, Migrant and Refugee Rights.

This newly-created role will be responsible for the coordination and communication between city officials and departments on its efforts to support established and newly arrived immigrants, refugees, and immigrants. It comes as Chicago has seen an uptick in the number of migrants arriving to the city.

It also requires leaders of city departments to take direction from the Deputy Mayor for Immigrant and Refugee Rights to help the efforts addressing “immediate needs and long-standing policy and programmatic goals to ensure the efficacy of Chicago’s status as a welcoming and sanctuary city.”

While the City of Chicago has not responded to Reckon’s inquiry on what Chicago’s “long-standing and programmatic goals” are as a sanctuary city, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot predicted “an even greater surge” of migrants to Chicago with the expiration of Title 42 last week.

The city has taken in over 8,000 asylum-seeking migrants since August 2022. But a recent uptick in the number of migrants’ arrival has Chicago’s resources and space “tapped out.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has bussed thousands of migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border to sanctuary cities like New York City and Chicago, which Lightfoot condemned as “inhumane and dangerous” in a letter to Abbott.

Chicago’s city council said it’s out of money, space and time to handle the “humanitarian crisis” caused by the sudden increase of asylum-seekers in the city, and projects a $53 million shortfall through June.

In response, Gov. Abbott claimed that he found it “ironic” for a sanctuary city like Chicago struggling to deal with an influx of asylum-seeking migrants, adding: “If Chicago can’t deal with 8,000 in less than a year, how are small Texas border communities supposed to manage 13,000 in just one day?”

But the designation of a “sanctuary city” is more nuanced and complex, according to Southern Methodist Law Professor Natalie Nanasi.

“A sanctuary city is not something that has a precise definition,” she said. “What it means to be a sanctuary city is different in every place that has designated itself as such.”

For example, a designated sanctuary city could mean that officials will push to pass policies to give state IDs to undocumented immigrants to help them apply for jobs or get a driver’s license. Or that could mean the city will focus on city council resolutions that encourage certain behaviors, officially or unofficially, towards welcoming asylum-seeking migrants.

This can look like the city police department not asking a driver’s immigration status when they’re stopped for a broken taillight, to not sharing immigration statuses and information with Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE).

In Chicago, it means that the city will not ask about one’s immigration status, show that information to authorities and deny city services based on one’s immigration status.

But it does not address the infrastructure needed for a sudden influx of migrants.

“When people come in an unexpected way, and unexpected times with no warning, it makes it really, really hard to provide them with the services they need,” said Nanasi. “Even if you have the absolute best of intentions.”

Nanasi added that organizations for immigrant and refugee services in big sanctuary cities like New York and Chicago tend to already run on “very thin margins” and are stretched at capacity.

With Chicago’s shelters fully occupied, hundreds of migrants have been housed at police stations in recent weeks, where they’ve reported bedbug infestation and are being fed expired food.

“So, when you have an unnatural and unexpected wave of people, that’s going to strain already-strained resources,” she said.

The other important thing that American Immigration Council’s Senior Fellow, Dara Lind, noted is that a decade ago, many asylum-seekers arriving in the U.S. have relatives they can stay with.

“Over the last couple of years, that’s still the case sometimes, but sometimes, it’s not,” she said, adding that some asylum-seeking migrants arrive without having any close relatives, or the people who they do know have just arrived a couple of months earlier.

“So, they don’t have a place to stay. That’s where the emergency shelter needs come in,” said Lind.

Because this is a recent development and the federal government has been told it’s not doing enough to assist with this increase, Lind explained that it’s created a hole for cities like Chicago to fill when it comes to shelter.

“They couldn’t just spin it up out of nowhere,” she said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency gives Texas money to help manage its influx of migrants but does not do so for Chicago.

“I think there is a question for all levels of government,” said Lind. “If [asylum-seekers] are people in need of support and recognizing they can’t get jobs and make money on their own, who is responsible for taking care of them?”

Naina Rao

Naina Rao

Naina Rao is Reckon's daily news reporter. She formerly worked at NPR producing for Morning Edition and the Culture Desk, and has experience covering Religion, Arts & Culture, and international news. Naina is fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, proficient in Malay, and is working on her Hindi.

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