Sanctuary Cities Can Be Better Prepared to Welcome Migrants

7 minute read
Oliva is a writer and immigration advocate living in Chicago. She is the author of Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith and Migration

In the last few months, we’ve seen a surge of inter-state migrant transportation across the United States, often carried out as a political stunt by conservative politicians. They claim that transporting these people to sanctuary cities will, in some way, prove that Democrats are fundamentally hypocritical in their approach to immigration, supportive only because they don’t have to manage the recent arrivals themselves, leaving that instead to border states. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently added Los Angeles to the list of drop-off locations, sending 42 migrants on a 23-hour bus ride from Texas to downtown L.A.—itself located in a border state. Other sanctuary cities include Washington D.C., New York, and Chicago, which since 2022, have each received thousands of individuals who crossed the border into the U.S.

This episode is one of a string of similar political stunts that began at the end of last summer, when busloads of people were sent to New York, Washington DC, and Chicago by Abbott. These buses were joined by a few from Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, and eventually, the infamous planes Gov. Ron DeSantis sent from Florida to Martha’s Vineyard. While these politicians attempted to use real people in order to score political points—trying to prove that “sanctuary cities” would also become overwhelmed with migrants in the same way that border states are—this political tactic has, instead, raised an intriguing possibility for welcoming migrants into the U.S.

Many of the cities where migrants have been sent have mounted robust welcome programs, which have been hamstrung by the lack of federal aid and funding, and the slow processing of the immigration system that leaves people without the ability to legally work. What if, rather than a reactive system that deals with people as a problem, our system anticipated the inevitable arrival of migrants seeking a better life, and provided them with the tools they need to succeed immediately?

Read More: Inside Migrants’ Journeys on Greg Abbott’s Free Buses to Washington

At the time that Abbott’s busing program began in April 2022, I was working at the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), an immigration legal services nonprofit based in Chicago. We watched as other cities began to be overwhelmed by migrants, but when the first buses arrived in Chicago five months later, we were only somewhat ready. NIJC joined in with the city’s initial response, giving rapid-fire “Know-Your-Rights” presentations to people who had arrived on a late-night coach bus, without advance notice, less than 12 hours before.

People were the way you might expect them to be the morning after a long bus ride: Kids swinging between cranky and hyperactive; parents and adults exhausted and trying to take in as much as they could amid the firehose of information and resources the city was providing. On September 1, 2022, and for the next week, I explained over and over again what various United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) forms meant, answered slight variations on the same worried questions time and time again, directed people to one of a dozen other volunteer stations in the room where they could get medicine or a transit card or a pair of donated pants more fitting for the brisk Chicago weather. Many people were wondering how soon they could get work permits—they were eager to get their asylum process started, and also knew that the sooner they could get jobs without jeopardizing their immigration status, the sooner they could truly begin their lives in Chicago.

Being in that room that day was incredible—the city and volunteer organizations had created this infrastructure out of nothing, designed to give these people a soft landing in a place they hadn’t really thought about before arriving. While some people were meeting friends or family waiting for them in Chicago and elsewhere in the Midwest, many others had come because it seemed like a better alternative than the crowded border shelters. Because they sensed that Texas would not welcome them.

The people I met that September were simply seeking a place to land. They were still unsure of what their time in the U.S. would bring, still hoping for a good outcome for themselves and their families. Many of them chose to stay in Chicago because of the reception the city came out to welcome them.

The months since then, this hunch about Chicago being a welcoming city has both bore out and not—the continual busloads of people have stretched the city’s shelter system to capacity, leaving people sleeping in police stations and ad-hoc shelters. Some residents of underserved neighborhoods, whose abandoned and underfunded buildings have been turned into these shelters have protested, complaining that the governmental resources and energy that has gone into housing migrants was nowhere to be seen when it was long-time residents that needed help. However, at the same time, a huge collection of advocates, volunteers, and organizations has sprung up to serve the various needs of people at different points along the way—bringing supplies and food to those at police stations, and looking for both short and long-term housing.

Part of the issue with the response is that Chicago has been forced to make it work almost solely on state and city funding, with only a small amount chipped in by the federal government. Another is that the people arriving in their cities do so with little to no notice or communication from the states sending them.

There is a version of the transportation schemes carried out by all these independently acting governors that, instead of punitive, is effective in sending migrants not only to the places they need to be, but the places that need them. In this scheme, the federal government coordinates with states and cities to provide transport to migrants—helping people reunite with their families who are already in the U.S., or head to places that have labor shortages and need people to work at fair wages.

Currently, the federal government has allocated only $800 million to support local governments across the country in caring for recently arrived migrants. Comparing that to the $2.8 billion in federal funding that ICE currently uses to incarcerate tens of thousands of immigrants, we see why both border states and receiving cities are feeling unsupported. What if, instead of paying for thousands of unused detention beds or incarcerating people to fill quotas, we instead put that funding towards city and state governments along with the countless nonprofits that provide a variety of services, would ensure a growth in care infrastructure—not just for new arrivals, but for existing residents of these cities. In addition, ensuring rapid access to work permits would ensure that newly arrived migrants are able to immediately start participating in their new homes.

Republican governors’ transportation tactics are designed to make us see newly arriving migrants as a logistical problem—a question of numbers that don’t add up. In reality, migrants are people, and welcoming them like people is the best way to ensure a good outcome for everyone. Chicago’s attempt to do this was eventually hindered by a lack of wider federal support for the ambitious project they were undertaking, but a future exists in which federal resources and money go not towards incarcerating migrants, but into helping them integrate into our community, injecting new vibrancy and activity into our neighborhoods, and further cultivating the fabric of the places we already live.

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