Chicago politicians urge feds to help fund migrant care

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People hold signs during a news conference Dec. 21, 2023, outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building where politicians and activists spoke about the need for the federal government to increase funding for migrants. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
Chicago politicians are calling for the federal government to increase funding for migrant care after earlier this week a 5-year-old boy staying at a Lower West Side shelter died and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent migrants to the city for the first time on a chartered plane.
At a news conference Thursday outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building downtown, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, said the city needs support from the federal government to provide wraparound services and accused Abbott of human trafficking.
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“This is a political attack that is costing people’s lives. It is very clear. We have to call this for what it is,” he said. “This is human trafficking. This is treating people’s lives as disposable.”
Sigcho-Lopez’s ward includes the shelter where 5-year-old Jean Carlos Martinez Rivero was staying before he died Sunday after a medical emergency, officials said. His family said he had been sick for a few days before an ambulance was called to the shelter, according to a police report.
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As Sigcho-Lopez spoke to reporters, a line formed out the door at the immigration services building behind him.
[ What to know about Chicago’s migrant crisis. ]
“We demand the federal government, the state government and local government to work together to save lives,” Sigcho-Lopez said.
The boy’s family had arrived in Chicago on Nov. 30, according to the city. His parents were devastated, Matt DeMateo, executive director and pastor at New Life Centers who is consoling the family, told the Tribune Tuesday.
Roughly 2,400 migrants are currently living at the Pilsen shelter, according to city officials.
U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García echoed calls for executive action from President Joe Biden as cities continue to receive an influx of migrants from Texas.
“It’s critical for Chicago, it’s critical for New York, for Houston, for all the other cities that are seeking to do everything that they can, but they cannot do it alone,” García said. “This is a moment when Chicago needs to continue to be a compassionate, welcoming city and the city is trying to do that.”
The plea for increased federal funding comes as tension between Chicago and Texas politicians reached a high point after the southern border state stopped communications with the city regarding the transportation of migrants.
White House assistant press secretary Angelo Fernández Hernández said the private flight charted by Abbott shows “how little regard or respect he has for human beings.”
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“This latest political stunt just adds to his tally of extreme policies which seek to demonize and dehumanize people,” Hernández said in a statement to the Tribune Wednesday night. “Governor Abbott is not interested in solutions, he only seeks to use people as political pawns.”
Andrew Mahaleris, a spokesman for Abbott, a Republican, said in a statement to the Tribune Wednesday that the migrants had signed consent waivers available in multiple languages upon boarding the flight.
“Until President Biden steps up and does his job to secure the border, Texas will continue taking historic action to help our local partners respond to this Biden-made crisis,” Mahaleris said in the statement.
Dr. Rebekah Fenton, a pediatrician at Alivio Medical Center down the street from the Pilsen shelter, said her clinic sees a large number of migrant kids staying there, but the doctors struggle to provide adequate health care to migrants who need follow-up care.
“Our impact is limited when we are unable to coordinate care to make sure all of our patients’ needs are met,” Fenton said Thursday. “Health care alone is not enough to keep patients safe.”
[ Vigil for 5-year-old migrant boy draws hundreds; advocates demand better ]
Fenton said the children she sees are contracting vaccine-preventable diseases. In her role as a school pediatrician, she has helped administer flu, COVID-19 and required vaccines for children to attend Chicago public schools.
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She said many migrant children are being sent home from school because they are sick, but she worries about their ability to recover from being sick when they are not able to obtain medication and space to quarantine at the shelter.
“Reports from our patients describe the exact opposite conditions in the shelter with significant problems and inadequate resources,” Fenton said.
Sigcho-Lopez said the shelter, which has housed migrants since May, needs to be decompressed to address large outbreaks of disease at the crowded shelter, which he said is at capacity. However, as more migrants arrive in Chicago and plans for other shelters are halted, the reality of that happening is slim.
As of Thursday morning, 14,150 asylum-seekers were living in 27 shelters with an additional 216 waiting at O’Hare International Airport for placement, according to city data. The city on Thursday announced it received its first permitted bus after the City Council tightened restrictions on when and where buses can drop off migrants.
On Saturday, Johnson’s deputy chief of staff Cristina Pacione-Zayas told the Tribune that Texas had halted all communication with the city of Chicago following the city’s harsher penalties for bus owners whose vehicles violate rules to rein in chaotic bus arrivals.
The City Council approved an ordinance Dec. 13 that buses would face “seizure and impoundment” for unloading passengers without a permit or outside of approved hours and locations. Violators are subject to $3,000 fines, plus towing and storage fees.
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That same day, the city impounded a “rogue bus” trying to drop off 29 migrants at the approved landing zone in the West Loop at 800 S. Desplaines St.
To dodge penalties and fines, bus drivers have dropped migrants off in Indiana and given them Amtrak tickets or Metra cards to get downtown, according to city officials.
To date, 96 rogue buses have been cited and one bus has been impounded, Mary May, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, said Thursday.
Advocates and volunteers who worked with migrants living at police stations are asking the city to allow them to come into shelters and continue to provide basic medical care. Sara Izquierdo said officials have previously told volunteers there was no need for them at city-run shelters.
“There is no reason that a child who crossed seven countries should die in a shelter in Chicago,” she said. “Let us do our work in the shelter.”
Mayor Brandon Johnson told reporters Monday afternoon that “we are obviously deeply sorry and hurt by this loss” before placing the blame on the Republican Texas governor, who has been busing migrants to Chicago and other liberal cities for the past 15 months.
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“They’re just dropping off people anywhere. Do you understand how raggedy and how evil that is … and then you want to hold us accountable for something that’s happening down at the border? It’s sickening,” the mayor said.
[ Chicago begins impoundment of ‘rogue’ migrant buses as new ordinance toughens penalties ]
Asked about poor conditions reported at the shelter, the mayor again defended the city’s attempts to care for asylum-seekers and said, “It sounds like you’re drawing a conclusion based upon a site.”
Johnson also did not address allegations of Favorite Healthcare Staffing being slow to get medical attention for the boy, which mayoral spokesman Ronnie Reese later said he could not confirm or deny because of a pending investigation.
aguffey@chicagotribune.com

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