Sanctuary cities struggle to support thousands of migrants arriving by bus


The arrival of thousands of migrants in New York, Washington, Chicago and beyond has prompted officials in those cities to scramble to establish a system of support services, with mixed success.

In New York, the Asylum Seeker Resource Navigation Center aims to provide assistance, including school registration. The Office of Migrant Services in Washington, DC, will provide emergency medical care and a connection to resettlement services. And in Illinois, the governor issued a disaster proclamation to “unlock resources” to help asylum seekers.

But as the buses continue to arrive, advocates and volunteers said, the need for even more support is growing and asylum seekers are falling through holes in a social safety net already tense.

Ariadna Phillips, the founder of South Bronx Mutual Aid, said when migrant buses started arriving in New York months ago, there were one or two a day. The number can now reach eight, she said.

Phillips said migrants were “constantly” calling groups of volunteers in the city with problems, leaving volunteers in rapid response mode.

“The scope and scale of the crises is colossal,” she said.

Busloads of undocumented migrants arrived in liberal strongholds without warning this summer as Republican governors in Texas and Arizona sought to advance an anti-immigrant agenda.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said last week that his state had transported more than 11,000 migrants from Texas to so-called sanctuary cities – 8,000 in Washington, 2,500 in New York and 500 in Chicago – since August, in what his office calls Operation The Lone Star. Arizona flew nearly 2,000 people to Washington.

In an escalation of tactics, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis last week chartered two planes carrying about 50 migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. The migrants who were part of the trip filed a class action lawsuit against DeSantis and other state officials, alleging they were defrauded for political purposes.

“Coming here with nothing”

Those arriving need food, clothing and medical care, putting a strain on volunteer groups and nonprofits.

“Everyone comes here with nothing,” said Team TLC NYC manager Ilze Thielmann.

Thielmann said migrants in New York are greeted by volunteers who ask if they are expecting family in town, planning to travel to other cities to meet family, or need transportation to shelters.

The city and volunteers are also working together to provide food, water and some basic supplies, such as clothing.

Beyond that, the infrastructure is fragile.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said last week that 8,500 of the 11,000 migrants who have arrived in the city are still living in the shelter system. The influx has led the mayor’s office to re-evaluate “the city’s housing rights practices,” a law that ensures the city provides shelter to anyone who requests it.

Volunteers received calls Tuesday that migrants who had been assigned to a men’s shelter were being turned away, Phillips said.

Others said they were threatened with violence in the shelters and even assaulted, she said. There have also been calls from women who said their children were not fed in the shelters or received food that was still frozen, she said.

In Chicago, some migrants have been stranded in suburban hotels with limited transportation and still struggle to receive mental health services amid the constant shuffling of housing, advocates said.

At least 60 migrants who were taken to hotels in Burr Ridge and other suburbs to make room in shelters were later turned away and sent to hotels in Chicago this week after Burr Ridge Mayor Gary Grasso , a Republican, lambasted Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, for sending them there without notice, adding that he “doesn’t believe in sanctuary cities.”

New help desks created

In recent days, New York, Chicago and Washington have all announced initiatives to strengthen support systems.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a public emergency this month in response to the bus and is investing $10 million in a new office for migrant services. The office will provide “reception, respite, meals, temporary accommodation, urgent medical needs, transportation to final destinations, connection to resettlement services, translation services” and other services, it said. Bowser’s office said in a press release.

Adams announced last week the opening of the Asylum Seeker Resource Navigation Center, which he said “will allow newly arrived asylum seekers to access the services or support they need, including legal services, schooling and health care – fundamental to helping families move forward.”

And Illinois Governor JB Pritzker last week deployed 75 members of the National Guard to help with the logistics of welcoming migrants as part of his disaster proclamation.

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency established a Unified Area Command Center in Chicago to rapidly deploy resources to support operations.

Chicago’s hindsight advantage

In some ways, Chicago has benefited from the hindsight as it prepares for arrivals while watching developments in New York and Washington, officials and advocates said.

“We were preparing by being in contact with our Catholic charities partners in these two cities, and we learned so many good things from them,” said Marie Jochum, senior director of Catholic Charities Chicago, who worked with many migrants who were transported by bus to the city. “That first day at the reception center there was a plan and people knew their role.”

Chicago has received only about 800 migrants since August 31.

Migrants in Chicago were sent to shelters set up by the Salvation Army, Jochum said. Caleb Senn, the Salvation Army commander in the Chicago area, said there were two shelters, one for families and the other for single men.

Within one to two days of arrival, they are taken to a central reception center where they can connect with relatives and access medical and legal help and family services, Jochum said.

Other organizations facilitate similar services.

The Little Village Community Council, which works independently of the city, has provided migrants with basic necessities like underwear and other clothing, and it’s even set some up with cellphones.

“Many came with only the clothes they were wearing, sometimes what they had been wearing for months,” said Baltazar Enriquez, who runs the local nonprofit.

The organization has also already secured some of the migrants’ cash-paying jobs pending court hearings.

“We help them integrate into the community,” Enriquez said. “Right now there is a need for labor and everyone is looking for employees, and we have them here.”

Mental health services are lacking

Yet, Enriquez said, there is a major hole in that care: mental health services.

“Mentally they went through so much” on the way to the United States, he said. “They were beaten. Some of them have even been raped. Some of them were imprisoned. I mean, they’re really vulnerable to certain traumas.

Enriquez thinks the city can do more to address the trauma. “We screamed at the top of our lungs about their trauma, but they act like we’re crazy.”

The Salvation Army and Catholic charities say they have providers who assess mental health and those who do intake are bilingual social workers. Mental health screenings are also part of initial medical exams at city health centers, Jochum said.

Adams, the mayor of New York, on Monday urged asylum seekers to seek out city health services if they are struggling with mental health issues after an asylum seeker, later described as a mother, died by suicide in a city shelter.

Thielmann said she has had a “stomach ache” since hearing the news, wondering if she had greeted the woman, said “Welcome to New York” and “led her to believe that she would be fine here.”

“It’s just a real punch to do this job and to know how much we can really help sometimes,” Thielmann said through tears. “But the city needs to step up more, the state needs to step up, the feds need to step up and actually serve these people and not just throw them into shelters and wade them through.”


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