Yosnalver lives at the police station with his 18-year-old brother. Photos: Taken from BBC.
Every day at 8:30 p.m., a bus pulls up in front of Chicago's 12th Precinct Police Station. Dozens of migrants, mostly Venezuelans, climb up until it is full, but it does not start.
The next morning, they get off at exactly the same point, and the bus leaves.
It is a scene that is repeated day after day in various police stations in the city.
Since August 2022, Chicago has received more than 25,000 migrants.
The city's shelters went from housing about 2,600 people at the beginning of 2022 to more than 12,000 today. And about 1,250 more migrants are waiting to be transferred to one.
"We will overcome this humanitarian crisis and we will do it together," Mayor Brandon Johnson said Tuesday, Nov. 28. "We can't abandon families and let them endure the winter alone."
With the onset of winter, buses parked in front of some police stations have become the only safe and warm place many migrants have found to spend the night.
Yosnalver is one of them. Since he arrived in Chicago 4 months ago, he has lived in the vicinity of the police station.
Because he is single and has no children, he does not meet the prioritization criteria the city has used to relocate migrants to shelters. He spends the day in front of the police station, sometimes playing with a basketball to keep out the cold while waiting to be taken to a shelter.
Chicago's police stations have become the temporary home for hundreds of Venezuelan migrants. Photo: Taken from BBC.
Apart from the bus where Yosnalver sleeps, another 30 migrants spend the night in the lobby of the same police station. The floor is full of mattresses, blankets and suitcases.
The police improvised a narrow corridor in the middle of the migrants with some cones and tape so that people who visit the station to do some paperwork have a way to get to the police.
"There is no room for a soul beyond that. And out here the bus gets overwhelmed at night. I tried to go to one of those tents there, but the cold is chaotic, you can't," says Yosnalver.
The tents he's talking about are in a park next to the police station.
Until a few weeks ago, when the crisis reached its peak, they also served to shelter entire families.
But the cold made that solution untenable, and now they remain empty.
On Friday, November 24, the city's temperature dropped below 0ºC for the first time, and in the past week it reached -9ºC.
"We are people who want to work. We don't want to be here," Yosnalver says.
Communication between police officers and migrants in police stations is scarce due to the language barrier. Photo: BBC.
This was reiterated by all the migrants with whom BBC Mundo spoke. The process to get a work permit is one of the big bottlenecks they face.
Some of them travel during the day to building supply stores in the hope that they will be hired on a construction site or given some money in exchange for carrying boxes.
Jesus, 20, makes a different living. He bought a hair clipper and offers his services as a barber to the other migrants living in the police station for $10. A bicycle doubles as a chair.
While cutting Archimedes' hair, he says he arrived in Chicago after crossing the Darien jungle. He says he dreams of settling in the city and not relying on government help.
Jesús tells BBC Mundo that he doesn't always have customers. Newcomers are usually the most interested, because "they come hairy from crossing the jungle." Photo: BBC.
A sanctuary city
The massive influx of migrants to Chicago, the vast majority of whom are Venezuelans, began in September of last year.
It happened when the state of Texas, where many migrants arrive after crossing the border with Mexico, began sending busloads of migrants to so-called sanctuary cities, such as New York, Washington and Chicago, governed by Democrats.
In sanctuary cities and states, authorities do not strictly pursue people who are in an irregular migratory situation and offer them some assistance.
Kathleen Arnold, director of DePaul University's Refugees and Forced Migration program, explains that governors in Republican states like Texas "are forcibly taking migrants with misinformation or without giving them much choice" to cities like Chicago.
Chicago is the third most populous city in the United States and one of the ten cities with the highest Gross Domestic Product in the world. Photo: BBC.
Two of the migrants BBC Mundo spoke to said that organizations in Texas gave them plane tickets to get to Chicago.
Several others said they chose to come to Chicago because they had heard it was a "sanctuary city" and "there was work."
The landscape they face today does not meet their expectations.
Robinson, for example, arrived in Chicago 7 days ago. A friend had told him he could receive it, but it didn't.
The woman next to him on the plane he flew to the city told him that there was a migrant shelter at O'Hare Airport.
Since then, Robinson hasn't left the airport. He says he's afraid of getting lost because he doesn't know the place and doesn't know English.
Robinson is 23 years old and tells BBC Mundo that he left Venezuela because of insecurity and homophobia. Photo: BBC.
An airport turned into a refuge
The bus station in Terminal 1 of the airport, right in front of the Hilton Hotel, has become one of the migrants' makeshift temporary homes.
Black curtains that run from floor to ceiling are carefully installed so that passers-by at the airport cannot see where the migrants are sleeping.
By mid-October, the site had been home to 900 people.
The city has been working at high speed to build new shelters and prevent migrants from having to continue living there.
But while some are being relocated to shelters, others, like Robinson, arrive.
The most recent figures speak of about 150 migrants currently living in O'Hare.
Richard, 31, and Linda, 32, have been there for two months now. They tell BBC Mundo that, weeks ago, the area delimited by black curtains could not cope. There were families with children who had to sleep outside, with no privacy and essentially in the middle of a waiting room.
Although donations of winter clothing, such as jackets and boots, often arrive at the airport, Richard is wearing only a cotton jacket and flip-flops with socks. With those clothes, he can only go outside for a few minutes.
"Right now we don't have (jackets). There are people who don't have the best education, so it's better for them to grab (the clothes that donors bring) and, if they fight, let them fight among themselves."
Richard is part of a minority that is eligible for a work permit because he crossed the border at one of the authorized entry points for asylum seekers in the country.
Still, you don't have the money to pay for a lawyer and the paperwork.
When BBC Mundo asked one of the airport's cleaners if the shelter has impacted his work in any way, he replied succinctly: "There is more work."
The "Bread of Life" program, run by the NGO Centros Nueva Vida, delivers food to about 400 people every day, migrants and non-migrants. Photo: BBC.
Chicago has a long history as a migrant-receiving city. In the first half of the 20th century, tens of thousands of African-American families arrived from the South fleeing racism and seeking a better future in one of the great industrial cities of the time.
Many Hispanic families, especially Mexicans, also populated neighborhoods such as Brighton Park and Little Village, renamed Little Village.
But it's been a long time since Chicago experienced an influx of migrants like the one that's been happening for a year.
As a result, its capacity to serve them is completely overwhelmed.
The situation in the shelters is not easy either.
Rosnay, a 36-year-old woman, lived for a month and a half in Chicago's 10th Precinct before she was finally moved to a shelter.
At the police station he sold cigarettes and, with that, he had managed to send some money to one of his sons who is in Venezuela.
"I haven't been able to sell any more cigarettes, because they sell too much in the shelter," she says.
"The food is not good. So I come here (to the police station) to be able to eat."
The state of Illinois has earmarked $160 million specifically to help house and relocate migrants. But the situation has reached such a point that the authorities announced that they will not be able to maintain the benefits they were giving and that they will cut them significantly.
For example, Andris, who arrived in Chicago in May with her husband and youngest daughter, is being paid rent on the apartment where she has been living for three months by the government and will pay it for three more months.
But that's not the case for those who arrived recently.
On Nov. 16, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that, for new recipients, that aid will no longer be given for six months but for three months.
And those who arrived in Chicago after Nov. 17, like Robinson, are no longer eligible for rent assistance. For them, the city will only give them the right to stay in a shelter for 60 days.
Although they are in the best of three scenarios, neither Andris nor her husband have a work permit yet, so they haven't been able to raise enough money to pay the rent.
A race against time
Despite the substantial cut in benefits, public entities, nonprofits, churches and private donors are joining forces to achieve the bare minimum: that migrants can spend the winter protected from the cold.
In Chicago, winter not only means average temperatures below 0ºC, but there is no barrier to protect the city from the icy winds coming from Lake Michigan, so the wind chill is usually several degrees lower.
"We can't afford for anyone in our beautiful city to freeze because we didn't know how to solve it," says Karina Ayala-Bermejo, president of the Instituto del Progreso Latino, a nonprofit that supports Latino migrants in the city.
The city's mayor announced on Nov. 28 that 17 churches will begin taking in migrants who are staying at police stations and the airport.
However, these churches will house 350 people in total, far fewer than are waiting for shelter.
Pastor John Zayas received about two dozen migrants last week at one of the two headquarters of the church he leads.
His routine as a spiritual leader has been replaced by conversations with the mayor, the press and migrants.
Frederick Fret, director of the New Neighbors program at the Christian NGO Centros Nueva Vida, has been working for nearly a year to help migrants find a refuge and then a place to live permanently.
"The biggest challenge is that, if we take 100 out of a district (a police station) to put them in a shelter, 300 more arrive," he tells BBC Mundo.
Centros Nueva Vida is helping 125 families each week leave shelters and get housing. In addition, in two weeks they will open a new shelter and, in three, they hope to expand their capacity to relocate 275 families weekly.
The urgency of the situation has forced both the government and activists to expand their capacities faster than ever before with the limited resources they have.
"We continue to expect additional funding from the Biden administration and will continue to advocate for the federal government to respond to this as a humanitarian crisis, directing funds not only to border states, but also to relocation cities like Chicago," Ayala-Bermejo adds.
By mid-December, this new shelter funded by the state of Illinois is expected to house at least 500 migrants. Photo: BBC.
City, county and state assistance to migrants has not been without controversy.
Nowhere is the opposition of some residents to Chicago's efforts to shelter migrants more evident than in the vast lot in the middle of the Brighton Park neighborhood where a new shelter for 2,000 migrants is being built at full speed.
In a single day, the entire metal structure of the first of the winter-friendly tents that will be located there was erected. It will be ready to receive migrants in a matter of days.
Jacquelyn and Beverly have been protesting against the construction of the shelter for weeks and tell BBC Mundo that they were even detained by the police.
"It's a threat to the people who live here. It's very worrying how people are going to defend themselves, how they're going to feel safe leaving their homes," says Jacquelyn as she holds a sign that says in English "the laws do not apply to newly arrived 'asylum seekers'".
One of the protesters' main demands is that $65 million be allocated to build the shelter and more than $90,000 a month to pay the rent for the site.
Eduardo, a Mexican Uber driver in the city, expresses another reservation: "When I crossed (the border) in 1988, not a day had passed when I was already working."
"There are people who have been here for 20 or 30 years and can't get a work permit, the American government doesn't give them the opportunity. And the courage they have is that they (the new migrants) were given permission and economic aid."
For now, a shelter like the one Jacquelyn and Beverly oppose is what Yosnalver, the young man who sleeps on the bus in front of the 12th Precinct police station, wants most.
"We deserve that opportunity to be in a dignified home, where we have shelter and can bathe," she says. "Even though we're immigrants, even though we're not from this country, we're human beings, we also feel, we also have needs."
On one of the wooden fences put up by the authorities to protect the new shelter under construction, a sign reads, "No tents will be built here." Photo: BBC.
(Taken from BBC Mundo)