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Public share opposition and support for DeKalb ordinance discouraging unannounced drop-offs of migrants

People attend a public meeting at the DeKalb Public Library, January 4, 2024
Maria Gardner Lara
People attend a public meeting at the DeKalb Public Library, January 4, 2024

Updated 1/9/24 to reflect board action.

The DeKalb City Council voted five to three Monday night to pass an ordinance to discourage bus operators from dropping off migrants in the city limits. Under the measure, bus companies that fail to get approval from city officials for a drop off would face fines and an impoundment of the bus.

Last week, the council voted in favor of the ordinance in a first reading during a special meeting held at the library.

At that time, members of the public shared diverging views around a polarizing issue as the number of people seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border grows.

The ordinance mandates that bus operators get fined and their bus impounded if drop-offs of asylum seekers have not been approved by the city. In the city’s application, operators must seek permission at least 10 days prior to arrival and must include a plan for caring for the migrants for 30 days.

“This ordinance is about going after the bus driver in the company that dumps people like cargo on the side of the road,” said DeKalb Mayor Cohen Barnes in opening remarks at Thursday’s special meeting.

Since 2022, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been busing migrants to what are considered “Democratic leaning” states. Opponents of the busing call it a political stunt.

Northern Illinois University professor Sandy Lopez spoke as a member of Welcoming Western Counties. It’s a network of organizations advocating for immigrant rights. She agreed with comments that Texas Gov. Abbott should be held accountable for not responsibly busing migrants.

“But these people should not be penalized because of his actions,” she said. “And, I think by passing this ordinance, you're giving a message that DeKalb is an anti-immigrant and anti-migrant. And be very mindful – These people do have status. They are not here undocumented. They actually come to the border seeking asylum, asking for permission, and they actually have rights as well.”

Some speakers questioned how the proposal aligns with the city’s welcoming proclamation.

It was proclaimed in 2018 under former Mayor Jerry Smith and
contains commitments of “unequivocal support of dignity and respect for all people in the City of DeKalb.”

One member of the public used her three minute time limit to read from the proclamation.

“ . . .the city of DeKalb discourages unlawful discrimination, and strongly supports the treatment of all individuals regardless of national origin.”

Another speaker who spoke against the ordinance was Joe Gastiger, a member of the city’s Human Relation’s Commission. He said he was concerned about how quickly the city was deciding on the measure without much input from the public.

“I'm a little bit offended,” he said, “that this was never even brought to us, if we're supposed to advise the City Council on issues that have to do with human rights, that have to do with our community.”

One of the commission’s primary duties is to provide recommendations about policies on matters related to human relations.

“I'm afraid of the impact this is going to have,” he added, “how this is going to frighten, and this is going to chill people who are already at risk in our community.”

In contrast, some speakers said the ordinance was necessary.

“Don't criticize for trying to be prepared and provide some guidance,” said one. “Provide suggestions and that's what they're asking for.”

Ultimately, the council voted five to one in favor of the ordinance on the initial reading.

Alderwoman Carolyn Zasada voted against it.

“It's an attempt to avoid this perceived burden of immigrants on the community,” Zasada said. “But what it's doing is telling people that they're not welcome,” she said.

Mayor Barnes echoed some on the council who said the city doesn’t have the means to support migrants.

“We cannot provide what we need to provide to our existing residents,” he said. “How can we also provide to others who are coming to our community?”

Instead, he said, the city of Chicago is best suited to support asylum seekers.

That’s at odds with Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s continued pleas to the Biden Administration for help. Those pleas come in light of the death of a five-year-old boy in December who lived in what reports said was an overcrowded publicly funded shelter.

Chicago is grappling with how to care for migrants, with some still sleeping on the floor of police stations and at O’Hare Airport.

Still, DeKalb Mayor Barnes lauded Chicago’s efforts.

“They're working on it, but they are getting better and better,” he said. “And at some point, they will figure out how to be a really well-oiled machine.”

DeKalb’s proposal is similar to Chicago’s measure that would impound buses for unscheduled drop offs.

Chicago’s action has had a ripple effect in the surrounding suburbs, as reports have cropped up of unannounced bus drop offs in the greater Chicagoland area.

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.