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DeKalb group wants city to apply for state grant to support migrants in the area

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A group of DeKalb residents is asking the city council to support migrants living in the area and for those who may arrive in the future. Earlier this year, the DeKalb City Council adopted a measure to discourage bus drop offs of migrants in the area. The vote spurred supporters to call for a community response to the arrival of migrants in the area.

The all-volunteer group called DeKalb Migrant Aid is leading that effort.

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” recited Linh Nguyen, a volunteer with DeKalb Migrant Aid, and a board member for the DeKalb County Community Gardens.

She was reading a poem entitled “Home,” written by British-Somali Poet Warsan Shire, during the DeKalb City Council meeting.

The writing describes the urgency which spurs some to leave their home country.

The group is asking the city council to apply for state funding to support migrants. Also, they want the city to set aside city dollars, like a rainy-day fund, for the same effort.

Frankie DiCiaccio, one of the coordinators of the group, said DeKalb Migrant Aid doesn’t aim to relocate asylum seekers to the area.

“It's about addressing if a bus arrives and a large number of asylum seekers come here,” DiCiaccio said. “It's about taking care of them until they go into Chicago, if that's what they want to do, or supporting them if they want to stay here.”

The state grant is called Supporting Municipalities for Asylum Seeker Services or SMASS.

The funding would allow the group to support migrants longer than the 48 hours the city says it’s prepared to care for asylum seekers if they were to be dropped off unexpectedly.

Only cities are allowed to apply for the grant.

And cities serve as a passthrough, dispersing funding to community partners that provide the services.

DiCiaccio said to apply for the grant, the city must demonstrate that local organizations have the capacity to provide services and show that there are currently asylum seekers in need residing in the city.

He said gathering the data for the latter is challenging.

DiCiaccio said there are organizations that may be currently serving asylum seekers, but who may not collect data regarding their immigration status.

So, they have to look at alternative forms of data.

He said an increase in certain services can likely be due to an influx of asylum seekers residing in the area.

“It's important to note that people who are Spanish speakers are not inherently asylum seekers and vice versa,” he said. “But you can look at different agencies who have seen an uptick in Spanish language services or other non-English language services.”

The SMASS grant provides funding for housing support, food, wraparound services, legal assistance, and health and wellness.

DiCiaccio said they’re in talks with three organizations to possibly collaborate with as partner agencies: DeKalb County Community Gardens, Family Service Agency, and Northern Illinois University.

“To reiterate, these are potential collaborations that would require funding,” he said. “This grant is a way to fund these efforts with outside money, helping us serve asylum seekers without tapping resources currently available for local DeKalb residents.”

He said conversations are ongoing and include outreach to other nonprofits and churches.

The SMASS grant doesn’t award funding upfront but reimburses nonprofits for services they’ve provided.

Council members expressed a general openness to the ideas in the initial discussion.

But for Alderman Greg Perkins, he’s concerned that a need hasn’t been identified.

“I think it’s too premature for city resources to go towards applying for a grant,” Perkins said.

There’s been no drop offs of migrants in DeKalb and the city has no direct public transportation route to Chicago, unlike most of the cities, such as Elburn, where migrants have been taken to.

DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas says for now the city staff will work on developing options for setting aside city funding to support migrants in town.

He said it would entail setting guidelines, and a system in which organizations, and perhaps individuals, can apply for city dollars.

“This is a first conversation about that and it's different from just saying, ‘let's apply for state money,’ Nicklas said.

“And that'd be fine, but we don't have the data points that the state wants. So, what can we do in the meantime? We could do that [develop options].”

DiCiaccio said the challenges aren’t short-term.

“We see increased geopolitical instability. We see increased war and displacement around the globe. We see increased climate change, all of these things will continue causing migration and likely will continue causing people to seek asylum elsewhere, he said.

DiCiaccio added, “we have a very large country that is obviously a popular destination.”

State and local leaders have called for the federal government to step up and address what some consider a humanitarian crisis.

DiCiaccio said the grant program is one way to address the challenge.

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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.