CHICAGO — For nearly 10 years, Wadsworth Elementary School sat empty in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. The school was one of roughly 50 abruptly shuttered by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in what residents call a “very anti-Black attack” on public education.
As public school options dwindled and public resources were pulled from Black neighborhoods, Black folks left — and continue to leave — the city in droves. But not without a fight. In Woodlawn, residents routinely advocated for the abandoned building to be turned into a community resource for youth job training or recreational activities.
Instead, it sat. That was until earlier this year, when, without community input, it was turned into a shelter for migrants.
The school “was closed in a very anti-Black attack on the neighborhood,” says Benji Hart, a community organizer and Woodlawn resident. “And then for the city to suddenly be able to turn it into a shelter does feel hurtful and insulting for so many folks in the neighborhood.”
As the nation reels from inflation in 2022 that hit its highest mark since the early 1980s and a historic housing crisis, the increase in migrants has stoked anti-immigrant sentiments that have not been seen since the 2011 debt crisis, according to Gallup polls. Some U.S. citizens view the inclusion of new migrants as a threat to their resources.
In Chicago, some Black residents say the migrant “crisis” has intensified their struggles and say they’re being slowly pushed out of their neighborhoods as what little resources they once had have been siphoned off.
“Black people had no resources here as it was, and then you bring a huge group of people that need resources, too,” says Tracy, who lives near a migrant shelter in Woodlawn and asked Capital B to omit her last name because of routine arguments amongst neighbors over the issue.
“Why this neighborhood? We’re already being gentrified. New condos are going up every day, and we know they’re not for us.”
But there’s also a growing group of residents who are encouraged by fledgling efforts to forge some semblance of solidarity and say the anger toward migrants is misdirected.
South Side Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor cautions against losing sight of the causes of the issues plaguing the city. The loss of Black opportunity and poor life outcomes for Black and Latino residents directly result from policy decisions. She’s seen it firsthand as politicians have “sold” her community to industrial companies, real estate speculators, and the Obama Foundation.
“Thousands of families displaced because of land speculation; people can’t afford to live in a community they’ve been in forever. And so what is the city doing to protect us? They throw a migrant situation on us,” she says.
“This is white supremacy in action — pitting Black and brown folks against each other.”
What’s really at play?
Since August 2022, an estimated 13,000 primarily South and Central American asylum seekers have entered the city, displaced from their homelands by violence, climate disasters, and economic insecurity spurred by U.S. sanctions.
Roughly 1,000 migrants have called makeshift shelters — shuttered schools, motels, and police stations — home in majority-Black neighborhoods like Woodlawn. As of earlier this summer, the same number of shelters had operated in majority-Black wards as majority-Latino wards.
The situation in Chicago — which has led to physical and verbal altercations between newcomers and longtime residents, including a gun pulled on a migrant outside of the Woodlawn shelter — is a small piece of a national issue.
After crossing the Texas-Mexico border, thousands of migrants have been bussed to Chicago by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who has sent tens of thousands of immigrants to Democratic-run cities against their will. In August, a 3-year-old died on one of the buses heading to Chicago. Also in August, immigration authorities arrested the most migrants at the Texas-Mexico border ever.
In Chicago, the country’s most racially segregated metro region, anti-immigrant sentiments have butted against decades of divestment plaguing the city’s Black and Latino neighborhoods, where grocery stores are rare, public schools are crumbling, and jobs are lacking.
When activist-turned-politician Taylor won a seat on Chicago’s city council in 2019, she chose a desolate block to house her ward’s headquarters. The symbolism was strong; she would help regrow the Englewood, Woodlawn, and South Shore neighborhoods under her control one block at a time.
Today, her office remains one of the few buildings on a once-thriving block in the heart of the South Side. Just beyond the building, clothes and furniture line a grassy plot where a home once stood.
Since 2000, only Detroit has lost more Black people than Chicago, and much of that loss has seeped from the areas where migrant shelters have already opened or plan to — Englewood, Woodlawn, Roseland, and South Shore.
For many residents, the loss of Black culture and life, and the inclusion of migrants, feel deliberate.
“In America, I think everybody knows people just don’t like Black people; they want to do everything possible to keep us in a state of despair,” says Asiaha Butler, a housing activist on Chicago’s South Side.
The settling of mainly Latino migrants in these communities has exacerbated the loss. Since 2010, the Latino population has grown by 15,000 while the Black population has declined by 140,000. In 2019, the number of Latinos in Chicago surpassed Black residents for the first time in history.
The drastic shift led to clashes between Black and Latino politicians last year when the city’s Latino caucus attempted to redraw district maps to increase Latino political representation.
“This city would not be the city that it is without Black Chicago, but now we’re starting to feel that our power is being taken away,” says Butler.
It’s hard not to feel the drastic change across Chicago’s Woodlawn community.
The neighborhood is one of the few on the city’s majority-Black South Side that has grown in population since 2010, driven mainly by a 60% increase in Latino residents — all while the Black population has steadily dropped.
As home prices drastically rise, new condominiums tower next to neglected two-flats. The mortgage crisis of 2008 hit the community particularly hard, and the housing rebound intensified its Black exodus. Vacant lots sit with signs advertising bankruptcy auctions.
As of August, the elementary school turned shelter housed more than 600 migrants, and according to documents released to Capital B through a public records request, an additional 300 migrants have shown up at the school’s doors asking for housing without being assigned to the shelter.
Introducing these new residents, most of whom are non-English speaking, has even highlighted a disconnect between the city’s Black political establishment and residents. The decision to house migrants in Black neighborhoods was ushered in by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the first Black woman to hold the position.
“We didn’t really put the migrants in a better situation by placing them here,” Taylor says, acknowledging that the forces behind their journey to Chicago were somewhat out of their control.
The migrant situation has elevated a false flag about the increasing presence of Latin American immigrants, experts contend. In reality, the number of Latin American immigrants in Chicago has declined by 30,000 since 2010, while the number of Asian and African immigrants has increased by 30,000.
However, the ebb-and-flow of immigrant populations may explain newfound support for the South Side from its usually uninterested white North Side counterparts. In a city that has historically been rife with racial tensions between Black and white residents, it has created a semblance of common ground rooted in patriotism.
For the first time in years, Taylor says, the white political establishment seems interested in the inner workings of the South Side. North Side council members have taken to national media outlets like Fox News and CNN to denounce migrants being held across the city, including on the South Side.
A 2022 study might suggest why: Since 1970, in cities with high amounts of Latino immigrants, white hostility toward Latinos has risen while white hostility toward Black Americans has decreased. The authors contend that Latino growth makes Black people seem more “American” to white people.
However, she questions if the support from the “same politicians that you’ll find on Fox News” is actually in the best interest of Black Chicagoans, rather than a way to stoke division between the two ethnic groups.
On the surface, the divisiveness in Chicago does make sense, says Karen Juanita Carrillo, author of African American–Latino Relations in the 21st Century: When Cultures Collide.
“You have Black neighborhoods that are neglected, and all of a sudden, they’re saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to give housing, food, health care, schooling to migrants and nothing to you,’” Carrillo explains.
While the South Side has watched the razing of homes, Black-serving public schools, hospitals, and mental health clinics, Chicago quickly made more than $50 million available to begin supporting migrants earlier this year. In total, city leaders estimate $255 million will be spent to shelter and care for new arrivals by year’s end.
Some community members recognize the glaring similarities between the two groups’ struggles: economic disparities, communal violence, and poor health outcomes.
“We’re starting to see people combat the idea that it’s a competition between two groups,” says Hart, the community organizer and resident in a Black ward home to a migrant shelter.
“I’m not gonna lie and say there’s no tension,” says Sylvia Puente, president of the Chicago-based Latino Policy Forum, “but our volunteer and mutual aid groups — Black and brown — have come together to deal with the humanitarian crisis that has long affected the city.”
According to interviews with more than a dozen residents and experts, the efforts could serve as a model nationwide, given the country’s shifting demographics. Nationally, Latinos are the fastest-growing ethnic group and have inched the U.S. toward becoming a “majority-minority” country, meaning no one group comprises the majority.
They say today’s solidarity efforts follow a precedent set in the 1960s when the Black Panther Party, Young Patriots, and Young Lords built the city’s first major multiethnic alliance, the Rainbow Coalition.
The city’s current coalition of Black- and Latino-led community organizations, churches, and nonprofits are advocating for economic development, affordable housing, and multilingual education on the South Side to serve the needs of both ethnic groups.
Black and Latino organizers have led multilingual language classes, offered job trainings, helped register Black and migrant youth for school, and conducted resource drives to provide food, clothes, and hygiene products to struggling migrants and the city’s unhoused, who are disproportionately Black. The goal is to break down language barriers and advocate for shared resources that ensure everyone has access to jobs, is safely housed, and remains able to call Chicago home.
Through the Welcome to Illinois Coalition, Puente’s Latino Policy Forum attempts to show that these resources can easily be shared. The group meets regularly to offer supportive resources for Black and Latino community groups.
“We still have a lot of work to address our long-term historical disinvestment in our predominantly Black communities, but we’re seeing that developing relationships between Black and brown communities is a helpful starting point,” says Puente.
‘We all deserve better’
On the heels of Chicago’s second-hottest day, smoke billowed from a grill outside Concord Missionary Baptist Church. Two blocks from the Woodlawn migrant shelter, outside the church, Black congregants taught new migrants to cha-cha slide.
Organized by the Concord Community Organization, the event attended by upward of 50 people was one of dozens held this year to unite the two communities.
Since late last year, the church has held a series of events, offering ministry to migrants and free English classes, as well as conversational Spanish classes for the area’s Black residents. Concord Missionary Baptist Church’s pastor, Kenneth Phelps, says that the relationship-building provided by the church fills a gap left open by the city government.
“Bottom line, communication is a problem; culture is a problem; And, of course, racism is an issue,” Phelps says. “And who’s mitigating those issues? Who’s offering counseling and conflict resolution? It has to be us.”
Black folks have routinely engaged in positive conflict resolution practices throughout the neighborhood. Earlier this summer, Tracy recalls seeing a migrant disoriented, digging through her trash can. Instead of calling the police, she went outside, Google Translate in tow. He was a recent immigrant from Venezuela, barefoot, looking for shoes, she discovered.
“We found stuff for him, offered him food, but it was a lot,” she says. “They’re looking for jobs, for money, food, a better life — but so are we.”
Mariame Kaba, co-founder of the Chicago Freedom School, a program for Chicago youth to learn community-building skills, says the migrant situation exemplifies the underlying story of Black Americans, from the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the Great Migrations that first brought Black folks to the city.
Black Americans should remember, “We are displaced people, too,” she says. “You may feel rooted in this land, [but] this land belonged to somebody else before Black people were involuntarily brought here.”
Ultimately, residents want everyone to reap the same benefits.
“People have begun calling for a massive expansion of resources and social services rather than getting into these arguments about who has the right to access resources and who doesn’t,” Hart says, pointing to calls for programs to maintain Black homeownership in Chicago, reopen schools in Black neighborhoods, and slow gentrification.
White, Latino, and Black people will inevitably begin living in the same neighborhoods, and that should lead to better resources for everyone, says Willie Manuel, who lives one block from a shelter.
“We all deserve better; we all deserve help.”