The migrant crisis has been hard on everyone in our community. I acknowledge and appreciate the tireless contributions of community volunteers and village staff who have made a huge difference in our efforts to address this crisis.
However, a very small subset of people who made this a local emergency on Oct. 31 have taken to sharing inaccurate narratives in print and on social media. These individuals have made the situation worse, most of all for the migrant families. They have preyed on the misery of the migrant families and have torn our community apart with their irresponsible narratives.
Narrative 1: Permission was sought and received from the village to bring the migrant families to the Oak Park Police Station on Oct. 31.
This is absolutely false. There was no approval from, or coordination with, village staff. This is what prompted the declaration of the emergency, and we still do not have a plan.
The following is a quote from a village staff communication to the village board on Nov. 1: “I want to alert you that the Police Department received an inquiry from an unnamed individual around 10 p.m. about providing space for asylum seekers situated at the Chicago District 15 Police Station. Shortly thereafter, after visiting the site, staff were alerted that activists would soon be transporting people from District 15 to our police station. Activists have been transporting people to our police station for at least the last two hours.”
Narrative 2: The actions on Oct. 31 night were taken to protect lives.
It was a cold night. I wish no one would have to brave a frigid Chicago night without proper shelter. However, this narrative falls apart when you start to think of the space the migrant families were taken to for protection. The Oak Park Police Station lobby can barely hold 10 people, a fact that was clearly communicated to the volunteers. What is worse is that this false narrative is being shared by individuals living in some of the largest houses in Oak Park that could easily accommodate 100+ people. If the intention was truly to save lives, then taking 100+ people to the Oak Park Police Station lobby is at best ill-conceived and reckless. Also, there were unhoused people that very same night in encampments in Columbus Park merely blocks away. They were left to fend for themselves.
Narrative 3: No harm was done to the migrants by moving them to Oak Park.
This move impeded the ability of migrant families to access services available in Chicago, not just in the short term but housing and job opportunities in the future. The possibility of this impact was not communicated to the migrant families. In addition, the move did not consider the lack of service infrastructure in Oak Park to support this unplanned move in either the short or long term.
Nov. 5 staff communication to the board: “We learned this past week that Chicago has a very specific sheltering and welfare plan in place to move people from the police stations into temporary shelter and along the housing continuing to more permanent, stable housing. This process is managed through a waiting list that corresponds with the census of people residing at the Chicago police stations. And, importantly, we also learned that migrants who leave Chicago, lose their place on the waiting list. So for now, until possibly otherwise through further advocacy, the migrants in our community have lost their place on the Chicago waiting list for housing. … In our staff analysis of the situation, it is critical that we advocate to reconnect the migrant population in our community with the resources available in Chicago and that we establish an ongoing relationship with Chicago and their system.”
Nov. 16 staff meeting with Chicago further confirms the preliminary assessment: “Chicago staff persons confirmed that asylum seekers residing in Oak Park are not eligible for any Chicago programming, including the newly announced federal work authorization pilot program which expedites the work authorization process, nor the newly announced partnership programs being funded by the state of Illinois who have offered $160,000,000 in funding to help the city set up a centralized intake center, tent base camps for migrants, and case management and other services. It is possible that asylum-seeking migrants who are currently in the village of Oak Park may have access to those services if they return to Chicago, and if they would otherwise be eligible; however, those returning would be required to get a new SR-number through 311 and would be placed in line behind those who are currently waiting in the police districts.”
Furthermore, the move did not consider the implications on the most vulnerable in Oak Park. The shortsighted and reckless actions of a few have forced us to declare an emergency, divert staff and resources from village operations, and thrust the responsibility of migrant care on all citizens of Oak Park (not just the financially able). It has also put us on a path to spending millions toward an unrestricted commitment with no plan or outcomes defined. Ours is a community with limited jobs and affordable housing options to assimilate the migrant families into a secure future. These irresponsible actions are now being justified with false narratives designed to take advantage of Oak Parkers’ big hearts.
We need to reject false narratives that divide us. We need a plan that acknowledges our realities. We need to come together to seek solutions that work for our community and for those who seek our help.
Ravi Parakkat is an Oak Park village trustee.