CHICAGO (NewsNation) — Samuel wipes tears from his eyes as he walks out of the old former school-turned-emergency shelter on a sunny Friday morning on Chicago’s Southwest Side.
He’s young — in his early 20s, he says — and has been alone for most of his life. And he’s lived at this shelter for six months — one of the first safe and stable places on his journey from Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. (NewsNation is using a pseudonym to protect his privacy.)
There’s a complex web of state funding, nonprofit workers and a citizenry grapevine that got him from the border in Texas to his next step, moving into a new apartment with another migrant.
And while he says he’s ready for independence, he’s nervous about what the future holds — something the aid workers helping him cannot predict either.
“Here I had people helping me, now I have to do things for myself,” he said. “I have to go and I don’t have anyone to help me like I do here, who love me. That’s what moved me to cry earlier.”
Sanctuary cities like Chicago are rushing to complete the next phase of managing the migrant crisis: urgently trying to move people from temporary shelters and police station floors into permanent housing across the region.
More than 8,000 migrants have arrived here. Many are Venezuelan asylum seekers such as Samuel — meaning they have a legal right to live in the U.S. while their cases are processed.
But that can take years.
“A lot of these guys (in the shelters) have been here now for six, seven, eight months,” said Andre Gordillo, director of New Life Centers’ Southwest Border Arrivals Program. His job is to get more than 1,600 migrants living in city shelters into permanent apartments by the end of June.
“For every person we get into an apartment, that’s one more bed that opens up at the shelter for people sleeping in police stations,” he said.
The public money, at the moment, will give these migrants six months of rental assistance. Nonprofits like Catholic Charities help them find and negotiate leases — specifically trying to place them in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. And they can apply for permits to work or attend school while they wait.
But unless there is federal immigration reform, experts say, these migrants’ legal status is precariously balanced on the positive outcome of a far-away court date or the hope for new policies to be put in place.
And that matters because as many as two-thirds of these migrants may not be granted asylum, Gordillo estimates, due to strict laws that require proof that their lives were endangered and that disqualify people who have lived in other countries previously.
The arrival of so many in need has created conflict within host cities. Tempers flared during a Chicago City Council meeting after the approval of $51 million in aid specifically for migrants settling throughout the city — often in the same neighborhoods that have seen so little investment from officials in the past.
“When the hell are y’all going to help us? When?” Ald. Jeanette Taylor said of the city’s historic dismissal of her mostly Black ward. She then called for Black residents to “stop thinking in us-versus-them terms,” the Chicago Tribune reported.
And even in Latino-majority neighborhoods, like the one where New Life is located, there can be tensions between former generations of immigrants, who came the perceived “right way,” and the newcomers.
“It’s a big change, an opportunity for everybody to be more open-minded,” a longtime volunteer with the organization, who asked that his name not be used, told NewsNation.
“Because in my generation … I came here not because of danger in Mexico, not because of risk of my life,” he said, adding that people may not understand seeking asylum is a legal way to enter the country. “The situation is different.”
A waiting game
The response in Chicago mirrors what many are calling a national crisis. Tens of thousands of migrants have been bused to non-border cities already in 2023, overwhelming even the most seasoned resettlement networks.
In New York City, some officials are reconsidering the city’s “right to shelter” law as shelters have filled to 40% over capacity, despite the opening of more than 140 emergency shelters. Denver, another sanctuary city historically open to asylum-seekers, says more than 10,000 have arrived there since December.
The result is a mammoth effort by nonprofit organizations, local governments and private citizens to solve the short-term problem of shelter.
Meanwhile, the question of what happens next lingers in the back of many of these workers’ minds. They say the future for these migrants — and the cities that host them — is unknown as long as federal immigration reform languishes in Congress.
A new bill introduced last week has offered some hope that a bipartisan solution may be possible. The legislation would grant undocumented people in the U.S. permanently renewable legal status to work and live — potentially impacting as many as 11 million undocumented people.
It’s impossible not to feel the weight of that limbo, even amid the flurry of activity surrounding Samuel as he walks into what is to be his home. The small two-bedroom apartment is located in a neighborhood just south of Alderman Taylor’s ward, and the majority of people here don’t speak Spanish.
Around him, movers set up donated beds, tables and chairs. He hasn’t brought much of his own, just a backpack and what looks like a small toiletry bag.
When asked, he says his focus will be on finding a job and maybe finishing school. “I also want to learn English, so I don’t have to rely on others,” he said. “Now that I’m here … I have the ability to go forward with my plans.”