© 2024 WNIJ and WNIU
Northern Public Radio
801 N 1st St.
DeKalb, IL 60115
Northern Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Return to Hola

DeKalb Migrant Aid advocates at the federal level for policy change to support asylum seekers

Maria Gardner Lara
Jeff Miller and Barb Cox assist with a coat drive held at Crossview Church in DeKalb, IL.

Leer en español

The wind swirls carrying a drizzle of snow and stiffens those bracing the cold. It’s for days like this that volunteers at Crossview Church have collected coats and winter clothing to provide to migrants in the event they arrive in the city in large numbers during winter weather.

Barb Cox helps with the clothing drive. She said the effort is close to her heart. She’s seen how NIU international students newly-arrived in DeKalb struggle with the cold.

“They're totally frozen,” Cox said. “They had no coats; they had no idea where to get coats. And we don't want that to happen, if we can avoid it.”

The church is part of a network of volunteers and organizations called DeKalb Migrant Aid that is prepared to coordinate and provide support for asylum seekers if they were to arrive in large numbers to the city.

And that’s just one aspect of the group’s work.

Advocacy at the federal level

Recently some members met with the staff of Illinois Congresswoman Lauren Underwood, to advocate for the federal government to make policy changes and increase their support for asylum seekers.

Frankie DiCiaccio, one of the leaders of the group, said they called for the hiring of more asylum officers and judges.

“ICE officers are not able to process or begin people in the asylum process,” DiCiaccio said. “So, investing in the asylum process will help us address the backlog and move these folks through the process more quickly.”

Also, they called for shortening of the work authorization clock. Currently, asylum seekers have to wait 180 days in order to apply for a work permit.

“We want to accelerate the timeline for these folks to become self-determinant,” he said. “If they can work sooner, they can earn money, and they don't need quite as much assistance. It would ease any financial burdens on local or state governments, agencies and communities.”

And, DiCiaccio added, the U.S. economy is strong and could use additional workers. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there’s over 9 million job openings in the U.S. and not enough unemployed workers to fill them.

U.S. Rep. Underwood has taken similar positions as the group. In January, she signed a letter sent to President Joe Biden with a list of requests including for the administration to “streamline government-wide coordination.”

City funding

Locally, the city set aside $50,000 from the city’s general reserve funds that nonprofits can apply for to support migrants if they were dropped off in the city.

Alderman John Walker of the seventh Ward supports the funding.

“I applaud the city for definitely coming up with the 50k,” Walker said, “and I applaud them for not going into the resources allocated for the people of the community who already need it.”

Walker said it’s important not to make light of the challenging situation that migrants face if they find themselves in our area.

“Nobody wants to get ripped away from their country [and] some of their other family members,” he said, “and start somewhere new.”

The influx of folks seeking asylum at the U.S. border includes Venezuelans, Cubans, Haitians, and people from across the world who are fleeing economic or political crises or violence in their home countries.

Since 2022, Texas Governor Abbott has arranged for asylum seekers at the Mexico-U.S. border to be bused to Democratic-leaning cities, with little concern for their well-being. Critics have called it a publicity stunt that’s cruel.

Last summer a three-year-old girl seeking asylum in the U.S. died as she traveled on one of those buses in southern Illinois en route to Chicago.

“This is humanity, these are people,” Walker said. “And let's just say, God forbid, we had to go to another country, because something happened in our country. So, you have to think like that at some point.”

Walker said a presentation Diciaccio held for residents was very helpful to challenge misinformation about migrants in the community.

“I did have a few people come up to me after my ward meeting,” Walker said, “telling me, ‘Hey, thank you for doing this because I understand the migrant thing so much better now.’”

For DiCiaccio it was important to ease any anxiety that support for asylum seekers might diminish resources available to address current needs.

“It's not a zero-sum game,” DiCiaccio said. “A rising tide lifts all ships, and we are building something that keeps in mind the need that's already here.”

Ongoing needs

He said whether asylum seekers arrive, an ongoing issue in the city that the group is attuned to is the affordable housing shortage.

“Actually, we are having conversations with folks across the city that are helping amplify the need of our current residents,” said DiCiaccio, “so that we can meet them and be better prepared to receive new folks experiencing need.”

Securing data

Another aspect of the group's work is their ongoing effort to secure data that would demonstrate a current need in DeKalb for funding to support migrants. That’s necessary for the city if it applies for state funding through the Supporting Municipalities for Asylum Seekers Services Grants, or S-Mass. The last round of funding was awarded in February.

DiCiaccio said institutions like schools or hospitals that have experienced, for example, an uptick in request for translations services, may suggest that asylum seekers are being served.

“And that might be a way,” he said, “to convince our city to apply, or to convince the state to fund us, even if we aren't able to say, ‘this many people.’”

DeKalb, though it has a longstanding immigrant community, has no organization dedicated to potentially serve asylum seekers in the area.


DeKalb Migrant Aid was formed after the DeKalb City Council approved a bus ordinance to penalize bus operators from dropping off migrants in the area.

A handful of reports popped up of migrants being dropped off in cities in the greater Chicagoland area with train routes to Chicago, such as Elburn and Aurora.

Some have argued the city’s bus ordinance was premature since the city does not have a direct public transportation route to Chicago. And thus far, no buses have arrived.

Nevertheless, if newcomers were to arrive in large numbers, the all-volunteer-run group advocates for a welcoming approach.

DiCiaccio said there’s over 80 people who’ve signed up to help in the effort that includes food, clothing and temporary housing.

The group is seeking partners to provide mental health, case management and legal services.

He said they're working on identifying asylum seekers already in town who can use support. “How do I make sure,” DiCiaccio asked, “I'm helping and getting people what they want?”

Back at the church, Jeff Miller assists with the clothing drive. He said they plan on putting aside some of the items just in case an emergency arises.

“But in the meantime, we'd like to get the clothes out to people who need them right now in the community,” Miller said. “So, we're looking at different options to get the clothes out.”

So as the group prepares to support newcomers, they want to ensure the items they collect are available to their neighbors.

Need a coat to keep warm? Call Crossview Church at 815 756-8729.

Leer en español

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.