Hidden within O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 1 is a concerning response to the increasing number of asylum-seekers arriving by plane in Chicago. Hundreds of migrants, spanning from infants to the elderly, find temporary residence inside a shuttle bus center at the airport. They sleep on cardboard pads on the floor, share airport bathrooms, and are monitored by a private firm.
This makeshift arrangement is a unique approach to housing asylum-seekers, and it sheds light on Chicago’s challenging response to the crisis. Unlike other cities that have faced similar challenges, Chicago’s use of airports raises safety and humanitarian concerns for those fleeing violence and poverty.
While efforts have been made to move people out of temporary spaces into shelters, the situation at O’Hare persists. Up to 500 people have simultaneously lived in a space smaller than a city block, monitored by a private company. The migrants’ stay at O’Hare can extend for weeks before they are moved to police stations or, if fortunate, to the few available shelters.
Chicago plans to introduce winterized tents to accommodate the migrants, similar to a strategy employed in New York. The majority of the 14,000 immigrants arriving in Chicago in the last year, many from Texas, have strained the city’s existing services. The city faces challenges in finding longer-term housing solutions and is seeking more assistance from state and federal governments.
Concerns about safety, public health, and the treatment of migrants persist at O’Hare. Sickness spreads quickly, and limited first aid is provided. Food and clothing donations are restricted due to airport security concerns. While Chicago acknowledges the imperfect nature of using O’Hare, it claims there are no better options amid the crisis it inherited.
Chicago officials are working to build capacity for housing people, having added 15 shelters since May and resettled around 3,000 individuals. The city acknowledges the imperfect nature of its response but emphasizes its commitment to the values of a sanctuary city.
In contrast, other cities like Boston and Atlantic City oppose using airports for long-term migrant housing. While challenges persist, migrants like Jhonatan Gelvez from Colombia express gratitude and hope for opportunities in the United States, highlighting the complex human stories within this unfolding crisis.