Chicago’s response to the influx of migrants is causing long-standing frustrations among black residents

Rev. Dr. Chauncey Brown poses for a portrait at Second Baptist Church in Chicago.
Associated press

The closure of Wadsworth Elementary School in 2013 was a blow to residents of the predominantly black neighborhood it served, symbolizing a city indifferent to their interests.

So when the city reopened Wadsworth last year to house hundreds of migrants without asking for community input, things got even worse. Across Chicago, Black residents are frustrated that long-standing needs are not being met, while the city’s newcomers are being cared for with a sense of urgency and with their tax dollars.

“Our voices are not valued or heard,” said Genesis Young, a lifelong Chicago resident who lives near Wadsworth.

Chicago is one of many major American cities experiencing a wave of migrants. The Republican governor of Texas has sent them by the busload to highlight his grievances about the Biden administration’s immigration policies.

To control the influx, Chicago has already spent more than $300 million in city, state and federal funds to provide housing, health care, education and more to more than 38,000 mostly South American migrants desperate for help . The speed at which these funds were collected has created widespread resentment among Black Chicagoans. But community leaders are trying to ease racial tensions and channel the public’s frustrations into action for the greater good.

The outrage over migrants in Chicago and other major Democratic-led cities has broader implications in an election year, with the Biden administration now pushing for a more restrictive approach to immigration in its negotiations with Republicans in Congress.

Since the Wadsworth Building reopened as a shelter, Young has felt “extreme fear” due to the noise, loitering and 24-hour police presence that came with it. More than anything, she and other neighbors say it’s a reminder of problems that have gone unsolved for years, including high crime rates, unemployment and homelessness.

“I certainly don’t want to seem insensitive towards them and those who want a better life. But if you can suddenly raise all these millions of dollars to address their housing, why haven’t you addressed the homeless problem here,” said Charlotte Jackson, the owner of a bakery and restaurant in the South Loop neighborhood. .

“For so long we accepted that this was how it had to be in our communities,” said Chris Jackson, who co-founded the bakery with his wife. “This migrant crisis has made a lot of people say, ‘Wait a minute, no, it’s not.’”

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson declined to comment for this story.

The city received more than $200 million from the state and federal government to help care for migrants after Johnson appealed to Illinois Governor JB Pritzker and President Joe Biden. The president will be in Chicago in August to make his reelection speech at the 2024 Democratic National Convention.

Some Black Chicagoans are protesting the placement of shelters in their neighborhoods, but others want to turn adversity into an opportunity.

“Chicago is a microcosm for the rest of the nation,” said the Rev. Janette C. Wilson, national executive director of the civil rights group PUSH for Excellence. Black communities have faced discrimination and underinvestment for decades and are right to be frustrated, Wilson said. The attention the migrants are receiving is justified, she added, but it is also an opportunity for cities to reflect on their responsibility to all disadvantaged communities.

“It’s a moral obligation to take care of everyone,” Wilson said.

After nearly two years of acrimony, the city has begun restricting some migrant accommodations — causing its own backlash. The city last month began expelling migrants who exceeded the 60-day limit in shelters, drawing condemnation from immigrant rights groups and residents concerned about public safety.

Marlita Ingram, a school counselor who lives in the South Shore neighborhood, said she worries about the division of resources between immigrants and former residents. But she also believes that “it doesn’t have to be a competition” and sympathizes with the nearly 6,000 immigrant children now in Chicago’s public schools.

As the potential for racial conflict increases, some activists point to history as a cautionary tale.

Hundreds of thousands of black Southerners moved to Chicago in the early 20th century in search of greater freedoms and economic opportunities. White Chicago residents at the time accused them of receiving disproportionate resources from the city, and tensions ran high in 1919.

During a wave of racist attacks in US cities that came to be known as the “Red Summer,” white residents burned large swaths of Chicago’s black neighborhoods and killed 38 black people, including by lynching.

“These white people said, ‘No, they’re coming here, they’re taking our jobs,’” said Richard Wallace, founder of Equity and Transformation, a predominantly Black community group that co-organized a forum in March to promote dialogue between black and Latino residents.

He hears echoes of that past bigotry – intentional or not – when black Chicagoans complain about the aid given to migrants. “How did we become like the white people who opposed the coming of our people to the city of Chicago?” he said.

Labor and immigrant rights organizers have worked for years to reduce divisions between working-class communities. But the migrant crisis has raised tensions between the city’s large Mexican American community and recently arrived migrants, many of whom are from Venezuela.

“If nothing is done, we all panic, we all fear and we all retreat into our corners,” said Leone Jose Bicchieri, executive director of Working Family Solidarity, a labor rights group with a predominantly Hispanic population. “The truth is, this city wouldn’t work without Black and Latino people.”

Black Americans’ views on immigration and diversity are broad. The Civil Rights Movement was instrumental in pushing the US to adopt more inclusive immigration policies.

About half of Black Americans say the United States’ diverse population makes the country strong, including 30% who say it makes the U.S. “much stronger,” according to a March poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Many leaders in black neighborhoods in and around Chicago are trying to find a balance between acknowledging tensions without exacerbating them.

“Our church is divided over the migrant crisis,” said the Rev. Chauncey Brown, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Maywood, Illinois, a majority-Black suburb of Chicago where some migrants live in shelters.

There has been a noticeable increase in non-English speakers in the pews, many of whom have said they are migrants in need of food and other services, Brown said. Some church members warned him against speaking out in support of migrants or allocating more church resources to them. But he said the Bible’s teachings are clear on the issue.

“When a foreigner enters your country, you should take care of him as if he were your own,” he said.


Matt Brown is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him further social media.


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Richard Wallace, founder and director of Equity and Transformation, poses for a portrait at the Westside Justice Center in Chicago.
Associated press