On a sunny and windy Monday evening, some 10 asylum seekers, mostly from Venezuela, stood outside Chicago’s 15th district police station, 5701 W. Madison St. The Austin-based police station looked entirely different than it did a month ago, before hundreds of asylum seekers arrived in Chicago on buses from Texas, joining about 8,000 people who have arrived in the city since the fall of 2022. As the city of Chicago’s shelters and respite centers are full, hundreds of migrants are temporarily sheltering at police stations across the city.
In the 15th district police station lobby, a group of asylum seekers, mostly men, sleep on the floor in sleeping bags, blankets and comforters collected by volunteers who stepped in to help.
Outside the lobby, a few plastic tables hold aluminum trays with food, water bottles, fruit, coffee, cookies and other donations.
“Most of them arrived to the 15th district last night [May 21], from the 12th district,” Carlos, one of the Venezuelan asylum seekers told the Austin Weekly News in Spanish. To the side, stood a group of 7 asylum seekers, mostly men. Some chatted among themselves, others walked back and forth on the sidewalk. As the evening went on, another asylum-seeker, Luis arrived from a nearby library. His wife, who sat on a bench outside the police station, said he went to print personal documents they needed for an immigration court appointment the next day. She is staying at another shelter but came to see her husband.
Carlos said he is part of a larger group that up until Monday was sheltered at the 15th district, which included women, one of them pregnant. Earlier that day, a medical team had come to the shelter to offer a general health check-up for all migrants, he said, though he could not identify the group. Later, a group came to pick up some asylum seekers who were relocated to a shelter, though he did not know who led these efforts.
Other asylum seekers said “help” arrives multiple times a day in the form of local people who bring food, clothes, personal hygiene items, shoes, bags, towels, comforters and blankets, used phones and SIM cards. For the last two weeks, volunteers have brought hot meals 3 to 4 times a day, in addition to pantry items. Phones and SIM cards are important so asylum seekers can reach family members in their home countries or other countries where their families may have migrated to.
All of them are fleeing Venezuela to pursue economic stability and, in some cases, safety. While everyone’s story and journey to the United States is different, all asylum seekers this publication spoke to said they came because they are pursuing opportunity to provide a better life for them or their families.
“We are very thankful for all the help we have received,” Leonard, another Venezuelan asylum-seeker said in Spanish. “We have more than enough food and water, but we want to work.”
Other asylum seekers echoed his statement.
“We are very grateful for the help we received,” Noel, an asylum-seeker said, as he looked around at the improvised shelter. “But this is not what we came here for.”
“We don’t want to be a burden to anyone, we don’t want to be a burden to the government or the people,” Leonard said. “And we want people to know that if a Venezuelan has done something ‘bad,’ they do not represent all of us.”
“Most of us [Venezuelans], and us here, we want to work,” he added. “We are eager to work, we want to do better.”
“I have never not worked for this long,” Julio added. He said he fled Venezuela as a young teenager, leaving some of his six siblings behind while others fled to neighboring countries like Colombia, including his mom.
Other asylum seekers said they have families in Panama, Colombia and other South American countries that they have to provide for. A job would allow them to get back on their feet and be independent, they said. It appeared that all asylum seekers this publication spoke with were admitted into the United States as they wait to go through an often lengthy immigration process where the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services reviews their asylum petition. In many cases, asylum seekers are yet to complete a series of steps, such as attending court dates, providing their biometrics, personal documents and proof that supports their asylum claims. In the process, they file for work authorization.
Luis, the asylum-seeker who walked to a nearby library, said transportation is also required. For his court appointment, a volunteer had offered to pay for a rideshare service, but he and his wife would likely have to walk back to the 15th district police station, like most asylum seekers do when they need to move around the city.
The immediate needs for food and clothing for asylum seekers sheltered at the 15th district are being addressed by a group of local volunteers, mostly residents from Austin, Oak Park and Forest Park, though people from all over the city are helping, volunteers told the Austin Weekly News.
The volunteer groups are all organized through group chats in the mobile app “WhatsApp,” in a grassroots network that involves people from all over the city and is known as the Police Station Response Team. There is one WhatsApp chat for each police station in the city where asylum seekers are taking shelter. As of Thursday, 73 volunteers participated in the response to the 15th district.
On Thursday, 15th police district Cmdr. Andre Parham, 25th police district officer Karina Vivas, representatives from Austin and city nonprofits and volunteers joined a meeting convened at Austin-based BUILD Chicago to coordinate efforts to assist asylum seekers in the 15th and 25th districts. Among their concerns, all volunteers expressed the need for infrastructure and a system that ensures an equitable distribution of resources and wraparound services.
Both volunteers and asylum seekers said the outpouring of help from Chicago residents and business owners has allowed them to have their food and clothing needs met.
“We have been so blessed that we can share our blessings, sometimes we share food with passerby people experiencing homelessness,” Carlos said, as he described the group they often see experiencing homelessness or people who use drugs walk by the police station on Madison Street.
While many have responded to the cry for help, there are also concerns for the asylum seekers safety as there have been reports of people approaching the group to offer temporary shelter in exchange for labor at minimum to no pay, Parham said at the May 15 meeting. Opposition from locals is also a prevalent concern. Though it was not mentioned by the asylum seekers or volunteers, Austin Weekly saw one woman who loudly expressed her disagreement with the help asylum seekers have received as she walked by the police station the evening of May 20.
This publication repeatedly reached out to the Chicago Police Department to obtain further information regarding the number of migrants sheltered at the station and how the law enforcement agency is working with the city to coordinate the response. We were asked to refer our questions to the mayor’s press office, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment as of this publication’s deadline.
As previously reported, earlier this month Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said the state will continue to send migrants who arrive at the U.S-Mexico border to Chicago and other welcoming cities like Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. Thus, the situation is fluid and constantly changes, volunteers and Cmdr. Parham said during the May 25 meeting. If, as expected, hundreds of migrants continue to arrive, the response is likely to continue and potentially adapt to involve more coordination of city and state agencies and other nonprofits.
This is a developing story, for a detailed description of the grassroots led response read next week’s edition of this publication.