Migrants at Wright College respite shelter hope to soon depend on themselves: ‘We want to work’

Emanuel Garzon and his family were among hundreds of asylum-seekers who sought shelter at a Chicago police station after arriving in the city this month.

Now, Garzon and his wife, Carolina, and their 2-year-old son, Emanuel Jr., are among 300 immigrants staying at a temporary shelter set up for the summer at Wilbur Wright College on the Northwest Side.

Garzon said he hopes his family can find a more permanent home soon and get permission to work so they can start to depend on themselves.

"We want to work, and for our children to study," said Garzon, 25. "Now that we are here we have to take advantage of that opportunity."

That was a sentiment shared by other immigrants who were enjoying the summer-like temperatures on campus Tuesday. Families gathered on blankets in the shade, drinking water or enjoying ice cream treats as children chased each other around trees.

On May 19, the Chicago Sun-Times disclosed that 400 asylum-seekers could be housed at Wilbur Wright College’s gymnasium starting June 1 — and remain on the campus until Aug. 1 — to relieve the pressure on Chicago police stations where immigrants have been sleeping.

Local Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) then hosted a community meeting at the North Side campus, 4300 N. Narragansett Ave., that grew heated at times as Dunning residents aired their concerns about security, the exploding cost of the migrant crisis and how long the college would be used as a "respite center."

Sposato said he was not at all concerned that the administration of Mayor Brandon Johnson had moved hundreds of migrants onto the campus days earlier than planned.

"That was the only thing they communicated with me about," Sposato said Tuesday.

"They just said, `We’re gonna try to get ’em in this past weekend. And I’m like, ‘OK. Whatever.’ … I’m OK that they moved ’em in early and getting ’em out of the police stations that much sooner. I’m not necessarily OK about the whole thing. I mean — it’s a very complicated issue."

Mercedes Diaz, 27, who is at the shelter with her husband, Javier Aponte, 30, and their 1-year-old daughter, Ana, said everything is very well-organized in the gym, where they sleep on cots. There isn’t any real privacy in there, but each family has its own area that is clearly marked off with tape.

She said security is in place to make sure nothing gets stolen, and volunteers have been kind to them. The food is nothing special, Diaz said, but she’s grateful for the help her family has received.

Diaz said her family was told it could take up to a month to find them a room at a more permanent location. When that happens the first thing they will do is try to find work, any work.

"Whatever it is, cleaning bathrooms, babysitting, you start from zero. It can be anything, I just want to work," Diaz said. "To get out of here and get a job. Maybe get a house and depend on ourselves."

Her husband added "something that you can say I’m earning with the sweat off my brow."


Community members concerned for the well-being of the asylum-seekers stopped by to drop off food, clothes, water, ice and other essentials.

Elodie Torres, 58, said she’s been by several times to hand out water and other supplies.

"I’m from the neighborhood, I graduated from here, and I know there’s been a lot of negativity around this, but when people need help you got to come out and help, regardless of what the situation is," Torres said.

Sposato said he’s worried about the endgame — that is, the promise that the 400 migrants will be gone in two months.

"My main concern is Aug. 1 is gonna come, and they’re not gonna be gone. I just don’t see ’em finding shelter for these people that fast," Sposato said.

Since last August, Chicago has taken in nearly 10,000 migrants. Sposato said he firmly believes asylum-seekers, many of them from Central America, came to the United States to "make a better life" for their families.

"They’re not here to sponge off of America or pillage the community. … [But] the only way we can help ’em is by saying, ‘OK. You can go to work now.’"

Sposato demanded an ironclad guarantee that not a single police officer would be taken away from the Jefferson Park District to provide security at Wright. With 1,700 police vacancies, he argued, the Far Northwest Side district was already down dozens of officers.

So far, so good.

A squad car parked outside the college over the long holiday weekend included officers from the 1st District. And private security guards were hired to protect the migrants. The only question is whether there are enough guards.

"I talked to some security experts, and they said there should be one security [guard] for every 75 to 100 people," Sposato said. "I never got any confirmation that they do have four or five security over there for the 400 of ’em."

At Wednesday's City Council meeting there will be a vote on whether to allocate $51 million in surplus money to housing for migrants