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DeKalb takes first step to prepare for possible arrival of asylum seekers

Earlier this month, the DeKalb City Council passed an ordinance to discourage bus drop offs of asylum seekers. While the measure drew supporters, it also spurred interest in developing a response for helping asylum seekers who unexpectedly find themselves in town.

Nearly 50 people gathered at New Hope Baptist Church in DeKalb on Wednesday to begin discussions on a community response in the event that asylum seekers get dropped off within city limits.

DeKalb Township Supervisor Mary Hess shared an outline of needs they'll have to prepare for such as food, shelter, and weather appropriate clothing.

Hess emphasized the aim is to develop a plan that is community-led.

“We are recognizing that the community needs to step up and run this effort,” she said, “so that us, as government units, or social service organizations in the community, can continue to help our current residents with their need.”

The crowd included elected officials, religious and nonprofit leaders, and concerned residents. And while some were not prepared to commit resources or volunteer, others were.

Among them was David Castro who is the board president of DeKalb County Community Gardens.

He said the nonprofit can provide food and make available a commercial kitchen.

The nonprofit organization has distributed food to those in need since 2012.

He said the need for food is currently steady. But that wasn't always the case.

“Early in the pandemic there was a huge need for food,” he said, “A lot of people lost their jobs, for example. There was a huge, huge need and then the driver immediately after that was inflation.”

“As inflation was going on,” he continued, “there was more people that just didn't have enough resources to get all of their groceries and then when they would come to us to compliment their needs.”

A common protest for not supporting asylum seekers is that by doing so resources will not be available to address existing challenges in the community.

Castro dismissed the concern.

“We have to be humane in all that we do,” he said. “And this is just one more of those instances. I'm not scared by the possibilities here.”

Folks gathered in groups chatting after the meeting, exchanging contact information and ideas.

Jennifer Yochem, the community service coordinator for DeKalb, said, “I firmly believe that the city of DeKalb, and the agencies and the volunteers, the citizens, they can, and they will come together, and they'll make things work.”

“We'll figure it out,” she added. “It might be a bumpy road, but we'll figure it out. And I'm really excited about that.”

She said supporting asylum seekers is not a matter of supporting one group over another.

“We do have long standing issues, but I think we can balance it out, we can do both,” she said. “I think we've got great people, [and] we've got great social service agencies in DeKalb.

One major resource for DeKalb is Northern Illinois University. The school hasn’t publicly stated any potential involvement in the planning of a community response, but city officials said they hope NIU will be a part of the conversation.

“They have so much property, so many buildings,” Yochem said. “They have the law school, that there would be great training for the students for immigration training. They have housing, they have food, they have kitchens. It's just, there's just so many possibilities.”

Govenor JB Pritzker has announced $11 million in additional funding for communities outside of Chicago to support asylum seekers.

But DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas said applying for the funds called the Supporting Municipalities of Asylum Seeker Services was not the city’s focus at the time.

Instead, he said the city’s priority is in supporting a community-led response.

On Friday afternoon, NIU spokesperson Lisa Miner in an email stated "NIU stands ready to work with city and community leaders as needed and appropriate in the event that asylum seekers arrive in DeKalb while en route to Chicago."

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.