Chicago’s chaotic and inhumane migrant evictions, explained

They point to much deeper holes in US immigration policy.

Several people walk on a sidewalk flanked by a haphazardly painted warehouse.

Venezuelan migrants, Lenin Diaz, 11, left, Maria Inojosa, 43, and Diaz’s mother Euglimar Ramos, 30, walk outside a shelter on December 19, 2023, in Chicago. Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Chicago’s decision to move forward with a controversial migrant eviction proposal is underscoring ongoing gaps in immigration policy that continue to exist across the country — and the inhumane quick fixes that are being used in the meantime.

Earlier this month, Chicago began evicting migrants from homeless shelters after Mayor Brandon Johnson instituted a policy stating that people must leave these centers after 60 days. The goal, Johnson has said, is to incentivize migrants to find permanent housing and to free up space in these shelters, which have become overwhelmed past their breaking points in recent months.

Migrants can apply for extensions if they have an extenuating circumstance, or if they are in the process of moving to permanent housing. Those who don’t have housing lined up can also return to the city’s migrant “landing zone,” a center established to process new migrants, and reapply for a shelter spot.

Advocates and progressive lawmakers have criticized the policy for being inhumane. As newcomers to the US, many migrants don’t have existing funds for housing and are waiting on work permits. Those who don’t have families or other social networks in the US are often struggling to find a place to stay as well as a way to remain afloat financially.

“New arrivals may be offered the opportunity to go to the landing zone, but many will likely end up living on the streets and parks near the shelter they were displaced from,” the Progressive Caucus of the Chicago City Council wrote in a recent statement.

Chicago’s response points to challenges affecting a number of cities — including New York — as they’ve grappled with an influx of thousands of migrants, many of whom have been bussed or flown there from the southern border by Republican governors like Texas’s Greg Abbott. It also highlights holes in federal immigration policy when it comes to both funding and migrant resettlement that leave local leaders grasping for a temporary patch.

“We have literally built an entire infrastructure for an international crisis that Congress hasn’t figured out,” Johnson said in January, regarding the construction of new shelters.

Chicago’s policy, briefly explained

Johnson first announced this policy last November as the city tried to stem the growing number of migrants arriving there, navigate concerns from existing residents, and assist the migrants who had already arrived. As of late March, there were 10,555 migrants living in the city’s 23 homeless shelters, a decrease from earlier in the year. Since 2022, Chicago has seen a large jump of more than 37,000 migrants arriving in the city, a notable uptick relative to recent years.

Following the surge in migrant arrivals in August 2022, Chicago began setting up emergency shelters in order to accommodate this increase, dubbing itself “the welcoming city.” As a sanctuary city, it’s committed to providing services for migrants regardless of immigration status, and it’s pledged not to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport people.

The investments the city has made in the months since include setting up numerous shelters in parks, schools, and hotels; establishing a “landing zone” center where migrants can go when they initially arrive; and providing social services and a caseworker for each new arrival. In total, this effort cost Chicago at least $138 million in 2023, and it’s expected to cost at least another $150 million this year.

“The City’s goal is to provide short-term emergency shelter to new arrivals as they are connected to resources including public benefits,” a Chicago mayor’s office spokesperson, told Vox via email.

But as this month’s changes make evident, Chicago and other cities weren’t really prepared for the long term.

The city’s policies — and residents’ reactions — to the incoming migrants have also changed as more people have arrived. At first, city officials emphasized Chicago’s welcoming history, but as the number of migrant arrivals grew in 2023, and shelters and services became overwhelmed, local leaders both sounded the alarm for federal support and introduced proposals like evictions.

Under the new shelter policy, migrants who have been in a shelter for 60 days must leave or reapply for a spot. Several exemptions also exist for families with school-age children, pregnant people, and those who are ill, buying the majority of migrants staying in these shelters more time. In the initial two days of evictions, eight single migrants were forced to leave, while roughly 2,000 could be required to do so by the end of April.

A chief concern regarding such policies is that they effectively leave migrants with nowhere to go. The city has urged migrants to apply for state rental assistance so they can find permanent housing, but it’s not guaranteed that they will qualify or that they’ll receive it in time. Similarly, it could take awhile for any applications for work permits to be approved, and only a fraction of the newcomers in Chicago likely qualify for such approvals.

“It really stresses me out. What am I going to do? Where am I going to go?” Daniel Vizcaino, a 20-year-old Venezuelan asylum-seeker with an April move-out date, told NBC News.

The implementation of this policy has already been delayed multiple times because of outcry from city council members and others, as well as freezing cold weather in the city. “We need an end to this policy, as it doesn’t solve our challenges, it merely exacerbates and displaces them,” Alderman Andre Vasquez has written in a letter.

Other policies that Chicago has put in place include coordinating transportation for migrants to other destinations if they have a family member or secondary place to go.

Chicago’s not alone in struggling to find long-term solutions for large influxes of migrants it initially welcomed. New York City also saw a surge of migrant arrivals over the last year, and spent an estimated $1.45 billion in the fiscal year of 2023 to provide shelter and support. This past January, New York City also began its own wave of evictions of migrant families, capping their stays in shelters at 60 days. And in mid-March, it announced that it was limiting single adult migrants to 30-day stays in the city’s shelters.

These crises are due to deeper problems in the US immigration system

Right now, cities are moving from one short-term solution to the next.

Regional leaders, including Chicago Mayor Johnson and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, have stressed that the current situation is not sustainable for them and that they’re in desperate need of more federal funding, as well as policy changes on issues like work permits.

The federal government has provided millions in grants to both Chicago and New York, but those funds aren’t seen as sufficient to help address the scope of the problem. Similarly, the White House has streamlined applications for some work permits, but those changes are likely only a fraction of what is needed.

According to Kathleen Bush-Joseph, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute (a think tank that’s opposed Trump’s immigration policies in the past), it can take months for migrants to get a work permit depending on their immigration status.

While those with parole status or temporary protective status (TPS) can try to apply for a work permit right away, asylum seekers must wait for their asylum applications to be approved before they can even start that process. And application processes for these permits can be complicated for newcomers as they navigate language barriers and bureaucratic documents. Larger changes to the work permit system are one of the more substantive solutions that regional leaders have also urged, but they’d likely require more federal action.

Beyond responses to the immediate crisis, public officials, including Johnson, note that more immigration reforms are needed from Congress in order to build a better system for resettling migrants. As Vox’s Abdallah Fayyad has written, the US has established an effective federal policy for resettling refugees that helps place people across the country and provides access to social services. No comparable system currently exists for asylum seekers, leaving cities and states who are receiving these arrivals to develop ad hoc policies on their own.

The prospect of approving such reforms, however, seems like a long shot as lawmakers have struggled to coalesce on even the most limited immigration proposals.


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