Chicago’s response to migrant influx stirs longstanding frustrations among Black residents

A man in a suit sitting at one end of a white church pew, his arm propped up
The Rev. Chauncey Brown says people at Second Baptist Church in the majority-Black Chicago suburb of Maywood, Ill., are “divided on the migrant crisis.”
(Erin Hooley / Associated Press)

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

So when the city reopened Wadsworth last year to shelter hundreds of migrants, it added insult to injury. Across the Chicago area, Black residents are frustrated that long-standing needs are not being met while the city’s newly arrived are cared for with tax dollars and a sense of urgency.

“Our voices are not valued nor heard,” said Genesis Young, a lifelong Chicagoan who lives near Wadsworth.


Chicago is one of several big American cities grappling with a surge of migrants. The Republican governor of Texas has been sending them by the busload to highlight his grievances with the Biden administration’s immigration policy.

To manage the influx, Chicago has spent more than $300 million in city, state and federal funds to provide housing, healthcare and education to the more than 38,000 mostly Latin American migrants who have arrived in the city since 2022.

The speed with which the money was marshaled has stirred widespread resentment among Black Chicagoans.

The outcry over migrants in Chicago and other large Democratic-led cities has wider implications in a presidential election year: The Biden administration is now pursuing a more restrictive approach to immigration in its negotiations with Republicans in Congress.

Since the Wadsworth building reopened as a shelter, Young said, she has felt “extreme anxiety” due to the noise, loitering and around-the-clock police presence that it’s brought. More than anything, she and other neighbors say it is a reminder of problems that have been left unsolved for years, including high rates of crime, unemployment and homelessness.

“I definitely don’t want to seem insensitive to them and them wanting a better life,” said Charlotte Jackson, owner of a bakery and restaurant in the South Loop neighborhood. “However, if you can all of a sudden come up with all these millions of dollars to address their housing, why didn’t you address the homeless issue here?”


“For so long we accepted that this is how things had to be in our communities,” said Chris Jackson, who co-founded the bakery with his wife. “This migrant crisis has made many people go: ‘Wait a minute — no it doesn’t.’”

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson declined to comment for this report.

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

Some Black Chicagoans are protesting the placement of shelters in their neighborhoods.

Others aim to turn the adversity into an opportunity.

“Chicago is a microcosm to 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, she added, and are justifiably frustrated.

She said that the attention the migrants are receiving is still deserved — and that this is a chance for cities to reflect on their responsibility to all underserved communities.

“There is a moral imperative to take care of everybody,” Wilson said.

After nearly two years of acrimony over shelters for migrants, Chicago has begun to impose limits on the accommodations, causing another backlash: It started evicting migrants last month who’d overstayed a 60-day limit at shelters, a move that has drawn condemnation from immigrant rights groups and from residents worried about public safety.

Marlita Ingram, a school guidance counselor who lives in the South Shore neighborhood, said she is concerned about resources being shared “equitably” between migrants and longtime residents. But she also believes that “it doesn’t have to be a competition,” and sympathizes with the nearly 6,000 migrant children now enrolled in Chicago’s public schools.


As the potential for racial strife rises, some activists are pointing 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 Chicagoans at the time accused them of receiving disproportionate resources from the city, and in 1919 tensions boiled over.

In a surge of racist attacks in cities across the U.S. that came to be known as “Red Summer,” white residents burned large swaths of Chicago’s Black neighborhoods and killed 38 Black people, including by lynching.

“Those white folks were, like, ‘Hell no, they’re coming here, they’re taking our jobs,’’’ said Richard Wallace, founder of Equity and Transformation, a majority-Black community group that co-hosted a forum in March to improve dialogue between Black and Latino residents.

Wallace said he hears echoes of that past bigotry — intentional or not — when Black Chicagoans complain about the assistance being given to migrants. It makes him wonder: “How did we become like the white folks who were resisting our people coming to the city of the Chicago?”

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


“If left unchecked, we all panic. We’re all scared; we’re going to retreat to our corners,” said Leone Jose Bicchieri, executive director of Working Family Solidarity, a largely Latino labor rights group. “The truth is that this city wouldn’t work without Black and Latino people.”

Black Americans’ views on immigration and diversity are expansive. The civil rights movement was instrumental in pushing the U.S. to adopt a more inclusive immigration policy.

About half of Black Americans believe 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 strike a balance, acknowledging the current tensions without exacerbating them.

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

There has been a noticeable uptick in non-English speakers in the pews, many of them migrants in need of food and other services, Brown said. Some church members have cautioned him against speaking out in support of migrants or allotting more church resources to them.


But the Bible’s teachings on the issue are clear, he said: “When a stranger enters your land, you are to care for them as if they are one of your own.”

Brown writes for the Associated Press.