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Hola es su centro para mantenerse informado, compartir ideas y conectarse con recursos. (Hola is your hub to stay informed, share ideas, and connect with resources in northern Illinois.)

Nonprofits share their experiences serving migrants in Winnebago County

Rock Valley College holds an Illinois Welcoming Center in a space shared with other service providers including Workforce Connections.
Rock Valley College holds an Illinois Welcoming Center in a space shared with other service providers including Workforce Connections.

A Rockford nonprofit leader doesn’t seek to draw too much attention to the organization’s work with migrants, as the debate on what the community’s role in supporting migrants continues to be divisive.

Kris Machajewski is the CEO of YWCA Northwestern Illinois, one of the largest nonprofits serving the immigrant community in Greater Rockford.

She initially wasn’t interested in an interview about how the organization supports asylum seekers since, as she stated, “It’s really a non-issue for Rockford at this time.”

Since then, she’s expanded on her comments.

“We have seen an uptick in Venezuelans, [folks from] El Salvador, Colombia, or a lot of the countries that are experiencing more violence and crime.”

The organizations in town have the capacity to support them, she said.

“I think there are enough service providers” Machajewski said, “that when we are all at the table, we do a pretty good job at being able to source their needs.”

Reports say, with about seven months until the general election, the southern border is a major issue for voters. It’s also playing out in northern Illinois, as local governments grapple with whether they have a role in what many say is a federal matter.

She said the problem when people discuss migration is that they perceive it as a new phenomenon.

“It's not just happening; this has been going on and the numbers have been increasing over the last several years.”

Machajewski said what’s new is the transportation of migrants to Illinois.

Since 2022, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, has bused migrants to northern cities, including Chicago, with the intent of bringing attention to the lack of the Biden Administration to response to the situation at the border. Critics say it’s a publicity stunt that’s cruel and inhumane.

Chicago has been the primary destination for buses in Illinois. In December its city council passed measures to penalize bus companies for unscheduled drop offs. As a result, news popped up of the arrival of buses in the greater Chicagoland area in cities that had a train route to Chicago, such as Elburn and Aurora.

She said organizations like the YWCA are part of a coordination plan to support migrants in the event they arrive in large numbers in the area.

Since December, when migrants arrived via plane at Rockford’s airport, there’s been no large mass-drop offs of migrants in the city.

She says the major obstacle for the city to become a destination for migrants is housing.

“There is a very lack of shelter and affordable housing, low-income housing, in the Rockford community,” Machajewski said. “So, that is the biggest challenge. And, I would say that that's one of the things that deters people from coming to this community is that there's nowhere to put them.”

A state funding program, called Supporting Municipalities for Asylum seeker services, or SMASS for short, provides municipalities dollars to support asylum seekers residing in their cities. The local governments serve as a pass-through to organizations who are reimbursed by the state for the services they provide to migrants.

The funds do not support the relocation of migrants from one city to another.

Organizations such as the YWCA could potentially be a recipient of such funding.

Machajewski said the organization could always use more dollars and she would support the city if it decided to apply for the grant, but only under certain conditions.

“If they([city] wanted – yah, I would advocate for the city to do that if they were willing to support the organizations that are serving these populations, and to help find a solution to the lack of housing and shelter for them.”

Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara, who is an ally of Governor JB Pritzker, has been mute on the matter. A city’s spokesperson declined requests for comment regarding migrants and if the city was preparing a response

In DeKalb, the city council passed a bus ordinance to discourage buses carrying migrants from dropping them off. Those in opposition say the ordinance was unwarranted since the city holds no direct public transportation route to Chicago, and only harms its existing immigrant community.

Aurora and other cities passed similar measures. In contrast, the Elgin City Council approved participation in the state grant program.

The Rockford City Council has taken no position.

And City Council Member Karen Hoffman says she doesn’t foresee the city changing its stance. “The city is not going anywhere with this,” Hoffman said.

When asked if she would call for the city to apply for state funding to support migrants, she said, “Not at this time.”

“We are just buried in too many other issues,” she added. “We're really trying to figure out how to solve the housing issue. It really is getting more and more desperate in Rockford.”

Illinois Welcoming Centers

YWCA Northwestern Illinois and Rock Valley College host Illinois Welcoming Centers at their respective locations.

These centers are designated to support immigrants’ integration into the community. The YWCA’s is located in an office building downtown that requires a security guard to give you a pass to the elevators.

At Rock Valley College, the center’s coordinator Adriana Londono said they’ve experienced an increase in migrants seeking services.

“Back then we only saw maybe one person, two people most every month,” Londono said. “Now we see maybe one a week.”

She said they may help migrants enroll their children in the state’s health insurance program, AllKids. For other needs, like for food, clothing, or legal aid, they provide referrals.

And while they’ve seen an increase, she didn’t suggest that they felt overwhelmed or were in need of more resources.

“Most of the ones that come already kind of have a plan in regard to where they're staying,” Londono said. “They either came to Rockford because they know of someone that's here from their own country, and they help them arrive here, and we just fill in the gaps of what they may need.”

Neither organization received additional state funding to support migrants through its welcoming centers, according to documents provided by the Illinois Department of Human Services.

Winnebago County

The Winnebago County board passed a resolution in March stating the county’s position regarding its role in supporting migrants. It passed on party lines with Republicans voting in favor of it.

Democratic board members argued the measure was not necessary, since it did not add or amend the county’s emergency plan to support migrants in the event they arrive in large numbers.

Trent Bass, the county’s Emergency Service and Disaster Agency Coordinator, described the plan prior to the vote that entails provisions for a short-term response and support for migrants to travel to Chicago to the designated “landing zone.”

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.