Cruelties Collide for Migrants in Chicago

Venezuelans driven north by U.S. imperialism landed in a city decimated by neoliberalism.

Lilian Jiménez

A migrant couple from Venezuela and their 15-month-old son stay in the lobby of a police station in Chicago on May 9, 2023. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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This is part two of a conversation about the roots of the migrant crisis in Chicago. As winter approaches, some 20,000 new arrivals, the majority from Venezuela, are in critical need of housing and support. For In These Times, Illinois state Rep. Lilian Jiménez — an immigration attorney who formerly led Illinois’ refugee welcome program — spoke in mid-October with Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, a longtime Chicago activist, and with Jesus Rodriguez Espinoza, the former Consul General of Venezuela in Chicago. (Part one appears here.)

Lilian: Let’s talk about the situation in Chicago, which all of us have a connection to. We know that our mayor Brandon Johnson is part of a multiracial coalition and is managing this emergency response effort. So what does this mean for the city of Chicago?

Matt: The way in which this situation is being leveraged to try to destroy this progressive political project here — the hopes and dreams that we’ve been fighting for, for many years — is in some ways, parallel to what Jesus mentioned about the weaponizing of migration against Chavismo. 

Today in the City Council, something that I personally have been involved in planning for close to two decades took its first step towards fruition. It was announced that we’re going to reopen two of the mental health centers [closed by Rahm Emanuel]. People, myself included, took arrest after arrest to try to make that happen. In his budget address, our new mayor also announced steps towards reversing the tidal wave of gentrification and displacement of Black and brown residents and working-class people out of the city.

These governors of Texas and Florida have said that they’re very aware of what’s happening in Chicago and of the threat it represents to business as usual. If Chicago goes from being a Republican punching bag, from being the perpetual boogeyman, to being actually a model of how we can get things right, that’s a threat. It’s a threat to the Republicans, and it’s a threat to sort of the more neoliberal market-oriented Democrats who have aligned themselves too often with corporate interests. 

And so, what’s the best way to fracture that? To keep people from talking about Chicago’s success in reopening mental health clinics, success in creating funds to actually address homelessness, success in beginning to create systems of real police accountability and community control of police. It’s to throw gasoline onto the fire of the long-standing effort of the political establishment in the city to to exploit divisions between Black and brown communities. And that gasoline is throwing a bunch of migrants here, dropping them on our streets, knowing full well that we’ve just been through decades of decimation of the exact structures that it would take to care in a compassionate way about those people. Closure of mental health clinics, closure of public schools, cutbacks to social services, just a bleeding of all the systems. And what’s left is the one system that has been invested in during all those years, which is the police. And which is an infrastructure for rewarding military contractors. 

And so the tools that are in the hands of our current mayor — who is somebody who’s been our brother in the struggles for all these years — are those left behind by those that created these conditions. 

This has been leveraged to say, on the one hand, to the Black community, Oh, look at all these people that just showed up here yesterday, you’ve all been fighting for housing for all this time. And suddenly, Mayor Johnson, who cares about them more than he cares about you, is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to give them the compassionate welcome that you deserve.” 

And meanwhile, out at the other end of those folks’ mouths, they’re turning to immigrant communities, and they’re saying, Oh, look how uncompassionate this mayor is” because there’s people on police station floors. They’re not talking about the Herculean efforts that are being done to try to create a care infrastructure where one has not existed. 

And they’re also turning to other immigrant communities, and sowing a similar resentment, saying, Oh, look at these people getting their papers because of claiming refugee status. When you all have been fighting for this for 10, 20, 30-some years.” 

So it’s the very pillars of the coalition that made this political moment possible — to make this very historic day possible where we had a budget address that is a true people’s budget address — that they’re trying to tear apart. And sadly, because of the lack of the context you’ve laid out in the rest of this interview, people that have good intentions and good hearts are playing right into the hands of the right wing that has every interest in destroying each and every one of those communities I just mentioned.

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Lilian: Yes. And another piece of the puzzle that I think people are missing is the ability of the federal government to absorb this population in a humane way, if it wanted to. As a former state refugee coordinator for Illinois, I was at the helm when we resettled 2,500 folks from Afghanistan who arrived in September 2021 [after the U.S. military withdrawal]. These were families, and many children, who overnight were taken from their country and plopped in our city. 

We had an infrastructure, because of the federal refugee resettlement infrastructure. It was really difficult, but we did it. We did it within a very short period of time. 

At the beginning, there was no federal funding. But then there was congressional and presidential action so that we were able to resettle the population humanely — with wraparound social services, housing assistance, employment assistance, language assistance, food stamps, cash, medical help, everything people need to stand themselves up. And we were able to absorb that population very quickly.

Not more than a month later, the Ukrainian population started to increase. At this moment, something like 19,000 Ukrainians have been approved to come to Illinois, which is, ironically, about the same amount of people from Venezuela that the city is saying they’re seeing. And if you look at the Ukrainian population in Illinois, in the Chicago area, you don’t see people sleeping on the floors. You don’t see people not having any social services or any refugee resettlement programs.

So it looks very much to be a decision by federal actors. Even with the Afghan situation, which happened from one moment to another, the federal government stood up the tents and poured money into this program. I was getting phone calls from the federal government saying, Can you please house people? We need to get them out of these tents and we want you to put them in hotels. And so that’s what we did. We put people in hotels until we could find permanent housing for them. And we did it relatively quickly with the support of non-profit organizations and the federally funded refugee resettlement infrastructure we have in Illinois. When the federal government wants to do that sort of humane resettlement, it has been able to do it.

And that is what I stood up and said, when this [Venezuelan migrant] crisis first began. I said: We can do this. We’ve done this before. And I was very proud of our work that we did, in the first few months, of putting people up in those hotels and then getting them into permanent housing. But the fact is that there is no federal funding flowing, there are no social services, there is no employment assistance, there is no fast track for asylum. When you see the two side by side, it’s hard not to think that there’s something amiss here.

Jesus: Interesting, interesting. It is a mess, if you ask me.

Lilian: Any other closing comments about the way that we can maintain our solidarity with our brothers and sisters across North America and South America, with communities in Venezuela and here in Chicago that have been taking the full brunt of neoliberal policies and continue to fight back? What are some things that we can share with our readers about actions that we can take?

Matt: I think that this crisis shows clear as day that internationalism is important to our social movements and to our organizing, not as some ethical litmus test about whether we’re righteous enough, but in a very practical, material way. Because the way we cut through that division is to point out where the common enemies are. The same corporate interests that displaced Black Chicagoans in order to create headquarters for global corporations are the exact same forces that are helping to dictate U.S. foreign policy and its interventions in Venezuela that are provoking these migrant crises. The absence of that context is what sets us up to play into this over and over again.

"If imperialism is ongoing, if the corporations are running the show, this trend of migration is going to keep growing."

So one of the ways forward is to really take that lesson and say better late than never. One thing I’ve always found incredible and also sad about the contrast between [Latin American social movements] and American social movements within the belly of the beast here is that internationalism is assumed in most Latin American contexts. People feel each other’s struggles; they take to the streets. When the Iraq war broke out, I was in Honduras and remember people coming down from mountain villages, sometimes walking for several days to catch a bus, to be able to protest at the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa. These were not well-to-do people, not college educated. But they were people that realized that these struggles are connected. And unfortunately, in the United States, there’s been a divorce between those who are organizing around things that have a real difference in working people’s lives, whether it’s healthcare, or housing or immigrant rights, and those that are talking about broader global systems and U.S. foreign policy. Even for those of us that know that it’s really impossible to understand one without the other, sometimes it’s just exhaustion, it’s just capacity. It’s, how do I find time for more than responding to the immediate crisis of the tenant being evicted? How do I find time to build in political education and an understanding of U.S. foreign policy intervention? 

Well, now we see if we don’t find time, then everything that we do can be undone by moments like this. 

Jesus: I agree with you. From my experience living in the U.S., there are people who create this bubble of migrant assistance that is more like a charitable thing than a holistic approach to solve the problem. Charity is important, but you need more than charity. You need that holistic approach that Matteo is talking about. If imperialism is ongoing, if the corporations are running the show, this trend of migration is going to keep growing. 

I believe people in the North will start realizing that if they keep squeezing us in the South, we will try to move North. We are not stupid, we also have internet, if we are dying in the South and we see that you’re thriving up there, we’re going to try to move North. And when imperialism can’t squeeze us anymore, it will begin squeezing people inside the U.S., which is actually happening. So that’s when things are going to get uglier. Finding real solutions to the problem means addressing the economic structure moving the U.S. and the world.

Lilian: It just makes me think about the contrasts — these global corporations who are already making so much profit are standing there waiting for their share of Citgo profits, while on the other hand, these migrants who have come up are sleeping on floors.

Jesus: And we talk right now about the U.S., but worse things happen in the Mediterranean Sea. They try to hide those thousands of people from Africa trying to reach Europe. You can build how many walls you want, but those people are just gonna move to the North if they don’t find a normal life in our countries.

Lilian: Peace, stability, you know, being able to just live their lives well. 

Thank you so much for your time. I definitely learned a lot and I really appreciated this conversation. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Part one appears here.

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Illinois State Rep. Lilian Jiménez (D-4th) is an attorney who has focused her work on labor and immigration policy and advocacy. She is a former Chief of Staff for Jesús Chuy Garcia at the Cook County Board of Commissioners and previously served as the Director of the Fair Labors Standards Division of the Illinois Department of Labor. Most recently Jiménez served as the administrator for the Office of Welcoming Centers for Refugee and Immigrant Services at the Illinois Department of Human Services. 

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