© 2024 Maine Public | Registered 501(c)(3) EIN: 22-3171529
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Scroll down to see all available streams.
RADIO SERVICE NOTE: Listeners may experience broadcast issues due to system upgrades.

Is Chicago prepared to handle an influx of migrants?

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

This is a time when we get to share a podcast we love from the NPR network. Today's is Curious City from WBEZ in Chicago, which investigates questions listeners have about the region. Since last summer, nearly 10,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago, most of them bused to the city by Texas officials. The city of Chicago and local organizations have been scrambling to provide necessities and open temporary shelters. Some migrants, including children and pregnant women, have been sleeping at police stations and public park buildings because options are limited. A listener asked what happened to the first wave of migrants and whether the city is prepared to handle more. To answer that question, Curious City reporter Adriana Cardona-Maguigad spent time with Carolina, a woman who arrived on one of those buses last year. We're not using her full name because she's concerned about facing repercussions over her immigration status. Before we begin, this story contains descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. Here's Curious City reporter Adriana Cardona-Maguigad.

ADRIANA CARDONA-MAGUIGAD, BYLINE: I first met Carolina last September at a church event on Devon Avenue. She was there with other migrants. They all had been staying at a makeshift shelter at a vacant YMCA in the West Ridge neighborhood. That night, the church had invited the new arrivals for a pizza dinner - jeans, jackets, socks, underwear all piled up on tables outside by the sidewalk for the migrants to take with them as needed. Carolina took a couple sweaters and jeans, but she was having a hard time finding her size.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: But the biggest need, Carolina told me back then, was to find a home. She thanked God for the shelter they were in, but after spending weeks crossing more than six countries, many sleepless nights on the streets and days in an immigration detention center in Texas, she wanted to find a place with a bed and a shower just for her. Carolina and the migrants looked tired that night I was there, but they also seemed excited about a fresh start in Chicago. This was also the start of many efforts between government officials and local organizations to aid and house the newcomers. I've stayed in touch with Carolina since that night.

City officials sent Carolina and others from the YMCA to a hotel near O'Hare Airport. She felt completely lost. Without public transportation, she couldn't get to thrift stores or find work. She had no money or family to rely on. She had no other choice but to stay where officials were sending her. Since then, Carolina has come a long way. She's more independent now and has her own place, but it hasn't been easy. To understand where she is now, we need to look back at how far she's come, starting with her decision to leave her home in Caracas, Venezuela. Life there got so hard that Carolina felt she had no other choice but to flee to the United States.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Years ago, back in Caracas, she had her own food stand. She was a go-getter and she was doing good.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: "We were selling in the streets," she says. "We sold coffee, fast food, like hamburgers and hot dogs."

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: "I have my own home, my motorcycle. I had everything," she says. But over the past decade, the country's economy collapsed under the authoritarian presidency of Nicolas Maduro. "Our currency was completely devalued," she says.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: "Cash simply became hard to come by."

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: When I ask her about the monthly minimum wage by the time she left Venezuela, she gets frustrated. She says the minimum wage is about $5.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Not only that, she and her husband have to pay a fix to groups called colectivos, she says. Those are civilians who work for Maduro and force residents to pay hefty fees to be allowed to stay in their homes or to go about their lives.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: "If you don't pay," she says, "you're in big trouble. The fix," Carolina says, "is usually half the amount of the money we make."

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: "If we want to keep our assets, like our home."

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: And her sons were in danger too. When her youngest was 18, the colectivos tried to kill him, she says. "We couldn't leave our home. We were harassed all the time."

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: That son was also in the military. She says he had orders to harass and hurt residents who weren't paying their shares. He didn't want to do that.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: After so much extortion and attempts by government officials to take over their home, she and her husband decided to leave and head to the United States, just like many of her friends and neighbors in Caracas were doing.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: She says she packed her bags with just the essentials. Then she traveled through Colombia and spent eight days in the dangerous landscape of the Darien Gap into Panama.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: On Carolina's journey through the jungle, little by little, she and her husband began leaving behind a few belongings they had with them.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: The jungle is filled with stranded belongings of fellow asylum-seekers - shoes and water bottles. She says it looks like a supermarket. "Imagine hiking up a mountain for 14 hours with a suitcase," she says. "I threw away everything."

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: "My clothes, my blankets - the more you walk, the heavier everything gets."

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Carolina says crossing the jungle was a traumatizing experience.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: They didn't eat for three days. Her husband is diabetic. They got lost for a while.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: She says the smell of dead bodies filled the air.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: She traveled with other Venezuelan women who later said they were raped and robbed.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: "You see people stuck, asking for help, and you just can't stop," she says. "All you can do is offer a word of encouragement."

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: When they got to the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, she and her husband were separated. U.S. immigration officials sent them to different detention centers. Carolina says she had to let go of the last few items she had from her journey, including what she was wearing. Immigration officials gave her a new set of clothes.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: All she had left was her Venezuelan passport and her phone. There, she was allowed to shower only once, she says.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: She spent about two weeks in that detention facility. After that, government officials gave her two options.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Carolina says New York seemed too big, too scary, so she picked Chicago instead. Eventually, she and her husband found one another, and they reunited here. And since arriving last August, she's been determined to make it work.

(Speaking Spanish).

Recently, I went to visit Carolina at the two-bedroom apartment she renting on the southwest side.

(Speaking Spanish).

She invited me into her living room and asked me to sit on a comfortable gray sofa. Next to the sofa, there was a desk with a computer, a shelf with a TV and a few fake plants, much of which was donated to her in recent months. Her new place is cozy, and she's so happy that she has her own bed and her own bathroom. I ask her, Carolina, how do you feel?

(Speaking Spanish).

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: (Speaking Spanish).

Carolina is looking proud. She smiles and says, good. I asked, did you ever imagine this life?

(Speaking Spanish).

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: She quickly interrupts, looks across her living room and says, like this? And with all these things?

CAROLINA: No.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Not at all.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: But how do you go from being forced to get rid of everything you have to rebuilding a whole new life in a completely different country and city? Carolina says she got to where she is now through a patchwork of support from many different agencies, churches and individuals. Starting last August, Chicago city officials and community organizations came up with an emergency plan to assist the new arrivals. The city opened over 10 emergency shelters and is helping coordinate food, transportation and other social services. City officials say they are spending millions on this effort and have been advocating for more funding from the state and federal government.

Carolina was given shelter at a YMCA briefly until she and her husband were moved to a suburban hotel near O'Hare, along with many other asylum-seekers. Living out in the suburbs was harder.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Without money and a way to get around, it was harder to get a job. And Carolina was determined to find work to help her sons get here from Venezuela.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: But she hustled. She found a variety of odd jobs, including cleaning houses. She also stayed connected with volunteers and organizations who helped her with transportation and other basic needs. Eventually, she was able to get rent assistance for three months. With that, she was able to start setting down roots. She'll soon start paying rent on her own.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Many migrants coming to Chicago during this crisis hope to find that same kind of stability. But in the last month, the number of people seeking shelter here has increased from about 10 each day to up to about 125, according to city officials. And for weeks, emergency shelters have been packed with migrants. Now, many public places are becoming temporary shelters, like police stations and park buildings.

Back in Carolinas home, the whole family has been reunited in Chicago. Her two sons and her daughter-in-law are now with her. And just last month, her grandson, Isaac (ph), was born - the first member of the family to be a U.S. citizen and a Chicagoan.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: But there are many challenges ahead for Carolina and the thousands of migrants hoping to find a legal path to live and work in the United States. Applying for asylum is not easy. Denial rates have historically been high. She says she can't go back to Venezuela.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Carolina says she's going to keep fighting to stay independent, keep working hard...

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: ...Maybe even open up her own Venezuelan restaurant that offers Colombian food.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: And why not? Maybe even Mexican food.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: "People will love it," she says.

CAROLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

DEGGANS: That was Adriana Cardona-Maguigad, reporter for the podcast Curious City from WBEZ Chicago. You can find that episode and the full series wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.