In the early afternoon of July 6, two kids, ages 6 and 12, and a teenager, 19, laid on comforters and blankets layered in a corner of the lobby at the 25th Chicago Police District, 5555 W. Grand Ave.
Catalina, whose real name is not being used to protect her identity, arrived with her partner, her two kids and her teenage nephew to the West Side police station on July 4. The family was flown to Chicago after they arrived at the Mexico-U.S. border crossing at El Paso, Texas in search for economic and political stability.
The Venezuelan family left their home country 18 months ago as the “economic situation was unbearable,” Catalina said in Spanish. They went to Peru, where they temporarily settled in hopes of earning a sufficient income to feed the family, stay afloat and send money to other family members who stayed in Venezuela.
“[In Peru] my girl suffered from bullying at school,” Catalina said, adding there is increasing xenophobia toward Venezuelans in Peru. Thousands of Venezuelan nationals have immigrated to neighboring countries due to a dire economic and political situation in their home country.
Catalina’s partner eventually left Peru and came to the United States in hopes of being able to earn more money to support his family and eventually be reunited.
When Catalina saved enough money to pay for the journey from Peru to the United States working as a housekeeper for a gallery, she and the three kids left. The trip for the family of four, from Peru to the United States cost her approximately $6,000 USD and was full of challenges, she said. In Mexico, they stayed at a camp in Matamoros, Tamaulipas for two months, where they feared for their safety. The family would take turns staying awake at night to watch their belongings and protect each other, as they knew of women who were sexually assaulted or individuals that assaulted each other “over food or some belongings.”
“Venezuela, it’s sad that Venezuelans are going through this situation because it’s difficult to leave our home country,” she said. “But the situation worsens every day. If you buy one thing, you can’t afford to buy another. Families who help each other the most are those who have family members who left to other countries who send money back so they can survive.”
“I left Venezuela to escape the dictatorship we live in, but my parents stayed behind,” she said. “They’re getting older so their income and my income combined was not enough to buy their medicines, food. Working here, I’m hopeful I’ll be able to send some of my paycheck so they can at least buy their medicines.”
In the two days Catalina and her family had been at the 25th Police District, she said they received enough food from volunteers who arrived at the police station to help. They also brought some clothes and shoes and offered some information, but Catalina is not sure when or how she will be able to file for asylum and a work permit.
She hopes her kids will be able to attend school when the school year starts, but first and foremost, she hopes to find housing. She has no complaints about staying at the police station, she said, but recognizes it’s no place for families to stay or for kids to be.
“Hospitals and police stations are solemn places,” she said. “We can’t be here or have kids running around inside or outside [in the parking lot], in case there is an emergency and the police needs to go. It could cause an accident.”
“If we have an apartment, I can go to work and leave the kids at home safe,” she said. She emphasizes she wants to work to support herself and her family.
“We did not come here for the state to take care of us,” she said. “I don’t want any government benefits. There are people who have relied on the state for a year or more, I don’t want that.”
She believes every asylum-seeker must “do a small bit” to contribute to this country, to support themselves and to help their families back in Venezuela. She also knows migrants from other Central and South American countries have come to the United States for similar reasons and speaks for them, adding, “we’re all humans and we’re searching for a better life. We can’t be judged or discriminated for that, only God can judge us.”
Catalina is one of hundreds of asylum-seekers who have been placed at Chicago police stations as the city has struggled to shelter the influx of migrants. Since the fall of 2022, more than 10,500 migrants have come to Chicago.
As previously reported in Austin Weekly News, asylum-seekers and migrants, mostly from Venezuela but also from other Central and South American countries, are sheltered in the Austin area, at the 15th and 25th Chicago Police Districts stations.
Though figures vary, in the last two weeks 35 to 40 people, including children, sheltered in the 25th district, according to the asylum-seekers interviewed by this reporter. Other asylum-seekers at the 25th police station declined to comment.
A similar number of people, including young children, are sheltered at the 15th Police District, 5701 W. Madison St., asylum-seekers said.
At the 15th, two asylum-seekers sitting on improvised chairs on the sidewalk along Madison Street, outside the police station, said they have been sheltered at the police station for nearly 2 weeks. One of them has a young child also sheltered at the police station, while the other one has two kids in Venezuela.
They also said they escaped a precarious economy, where their monthly salary of $20 USD was not enough to cover their essential needs.
“A liter of milk costs $6 USD,” said Aldo, whose real name is not being used to protect his identity. “A pair of shoes is $40; with your salary you can’t buy anything. You can’t live.”
Andrea, whose real name is also concealed to protect her identity, echoed Aldo. She said she came to the United States to work and provide a better future for her child, who played with another toddler and two young children on the sidewalk. A few minutes later, two volunteers from the Police Station Response team arrived and handed the kids a pink soccer ball.
The volunteers, as previously reported in Austin Weekly, are residents of Austin and neighboring communities, as well as other parts of the city, who have stepped up to bring food, clothing, personal items, cell phones, SIM cards, among other needed items to the 15th District. On July 6, they arrived with plastic bags where asylum-seekers could put their dirty laundry and took them to a nearby laundromat to wash their clothes.
“It is more empowering this way,” said Celine Woznica. A few weeks ago, BUILD Chicago also opened its doors to provide showers and laundry facilities to asylum-seekers from the 15th and 25th districts, but as their summer programs began, they had to reduce the time they could allocate for asylum-seekers.
Allegations of sexual abuse by cop in another district
It is unclear if asylum-seekers will continue to stay at Chicago police stations citywide. Last week, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune reported that one officer from the 10th (Ogden) Police District, 3315 W. Ogden Ave., was accused of impregnating a teenage girl, while other officers were accused of “improper sexual relations” with immigrants who had been sleeping in police stations. CPD’s Bureau of Internal Affairs and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability are investigating the allegations, a police spokesperson said.
In response to the allegations, the Illinois Latino Agenda said in a press release that “these allegations, if true, represent a gross abuse of power and a violation of human rights and dignity. We demand a thorough and transparent investigation by COPA, as well as accountability and justice for any officer or others involved and any individuals harmed.”
“As a sanctuary city, we must condemn these heinous acts and demand justice for those affected.”