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Aurora group seeks to support migrants as they discuss ongoing challenges in the city

Aurora, IL
Aurora, IL

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On a recent cold Saturday afternoon, folks gathered at the Aurora Public Library to brainstorm ideas on how to support migrants in the Chicagoland area.

“I mentioned having coats and medicine and things like that, that we're kind of just sitting on,” said Luma Webster, the host of the community meeting and executive director of Aurora Mutual Aid, formally known as Indivisible Aurora.

“They were meant for migrant arrivals that ended up not staying in Aurora,” Webster said.

She said over the last year, the organization collected items in the event that migrants were dropped off in the city. And while buses did arrive, asylum seekers were directed to Chicago.

Attendees sat in groups discussing how to direct the resources collected, and whether the group would like to develop a plan for supporting migrants who arrive to the city.

Webster said she’d like Aurora to be an option for asylum seekers in need of housing. But doing so, she said, would require addressing housing challenges like rising rents in Aurora.

She said affordable housing is unattainable “not just for migrants, but for lots and lots and lots of people.”

According to Housing Action Illinois, there’s a statewide affordable housing shortage of nearly 300,000 units.

She said the matter is urgent, since Chicago’s shelter policy for migrants limits stays to 60 days. According to reports, that rule goes into effect in February.

To address housing, she suggest there be a focus on cooperative housing, and possible partnerships with landlords who can provide reduced rentals units with tenant protections.

For Webster, supporting migrants is personal. She recalls crossing the border with her mother at one year old to join her father in the U.S. She said her family didn’t have access to resources when they settled in the area. So, when she asks her parents if they support her organizing effort to secure support for migrants, she said, “They say ‘yes’ automatically.”

“‘Why would I want someone from our diaspora or our community to struggle the way that we did?’” she said.

Webster said the group could lobby the city “to actually provide a response to helping migrants and being open to receiving migrants."

Thus far, the city has passed an ordinance penalizing bus operators who drop off asylum seekers. The city council passed the emergency ordinance after several buses took migrants to the city’s Metra station where the asylum seekers were shuffled to Chicago via train.

At a council meeting, members of the audience called out the city for declining to apply for state funding available to communities outside of Chicago to support migrants.

WNIJ reached out to the city for comment but has not received a response.

Last week, Governor JB Pritzker announced a new round of funding in that program, just as asylum seekers were sheltered on buses due to lack of shelter space in Chicago.

Among the attendees at the community meeting was Kane County Board member Mavis Bates. She says applying for the state program is something the county ought to consider.

“If we could apply for that money, and even if we just are a pass-through agency to give it to the food pantries," Bates said, "that's money that we should not let slip through our fingers."

In the meantime, she’s working on a proclamation of support for migrants with a Republican member.

But she’s not sure if it can get passed by the county board.

“My version of the proclamation," she said, "states that Kane County will do everything we can to alleviate any suffering of any immigrants that are laid on our doorstep."

The meeting also drew organizations like the Illinois Alliance for Reentry and Justice. Avalon Betts-Gaston, the group’s executive director, said they focus on issues related to people and their families entangled with the criminal legal system.

“There's a lot of intersectionality between our work and the work of the migrant community," Betts-Gaston said, "because we as a society have actually decided for the most part to criminalize migrants and migration."

She said whether a migrant, a formerly incarcerated person or an individual with a mental health issue, a commonly shared challenge is housing.

“Until we say everybody doesn't have to make money off housing," she said, "and that we owe it to human beings, period, to make sure they have housing, until we get to that place, we're always going to just be band-aiding it.”

Organizers say the ideas generated at the two-hour session will be synthesized and offered for the group to review at their next meeting.

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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.