Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began sending people on buses to sanctuary cities in April of 2022. Eighteen months since the beginning of the operation “Lone Star,” approximately 25,000 people have been taken north on 500 buses. Chicago received approximately 2,600 Venezuelan migrants from Texas, and its northern neighborhood of Rogers Park, which has a long history of receiving refugee and migrant populations, received many of them with open arms.
Accommodation was found for them in a former YMCA building; the children began to attend local schools. The community at one of them, the Rogers Fine Arts School, quickly organized to fundraise and collect donations. Perhaps even more importantly, it gave the Venezuelan families a sense of belonging.
However, once they began to put down tentative roots in Rogers Park, the Chicago city officials decided to resettle them to temporary accommodation at Daley College in southwest Chicago where they had no safety net and much worse employment prospects. The community rallied to keep them at Rogers Park.
Jill Hallet, one of the parent-activists tied to Rogers Fine Arts, said: “Teachers, friends, service providers, and kids, all came out to show support. We called politicians, circulated petitions, and spoke to the media. In the end, the families were given a few more days to get themselves ready but were ultimately forced to move.”
These families had walked through seven countries over 35 days to reach the United States. As a result, many people have suffered injuries to their bodies, particularly their backs, legs, and feet, that make walking long distances excruciating. The relocation aggravated the trauma, but at this point, they were determined to go back to Rogers Park.
In order to assist their plan to return, Hallet worked with her church, the Lake Street Church of Evanston, to apply for a grant from American Baptist Home Mission Societies, an American Baptist agency that provides a variety of grants for underserved and minoritized communities.
She hoped that it would fund the purchase of 50 train cards — necessary to use the local commuter train system — loaded up with credit. Such cards would allow the Venezuelans to travel to Rogers Park to job and house hunt there.
Not only were Hallett and the church successful in securing the $3,000 grant, but the church decided to top it up with $2000 from its own budget. The $5,000 paid for 50 ticket cards with $95 credit on each (a day of unlimited train travel costs $6). Yexis, a Venezuelan mother of one, said: “It will help me take my daughter to school and look for a job.”
Commenting on Lake Street Church’s support of the initiative, the senior minister Rev. Dr. Michael Woolf said: “We know that Jesus is present in the most vulnerable people. While there’s plenty about faith that’s impossible to know, we can be sure that Jesus is right here in Chicago, and the only thing that matters is how we respond to that. The grant from ABHMS gives us a chance to be a part of some of the holiest work possible.”
The Rev. Abner Coto-Bonilla, the ABHMS’ national coordinator for Latino/a ministries, said: “ABHMS is delighted to fund this worthwhile project. As a mission organization, we are committed to supporting initiatives such as this one that have social justice for immigrants and refugees at heart.”
And the good news kept coming — on Sept. 21, it was announced that Venezuelans who entered the United States before Aug. 1, 2023, were granted temporary deportation relief and access to work permits. This development offers a glimpse of hope after the instability that followed the month-long physically and emotionally taxing journey from Venezuela where they faced many kinds of trauma. As the families have received the Ventra cards, they are able to begin a process that will, hopefully, bring them back to the neighborhood where they feel at home and are enthusiastically awaited by the community.
While Gov. Abbott appeared to try to lampoon Chicago and other sanctuary cities by sending buses full of desperate people seeking safety for themselves and their families, he did not anticipate that they would be received with open hearts, houses, and churches. Hallet commented: “Earlier this year, Venezuelan families arrived on buses sent by the governor of Texas as a sort of human rights ‘prank’ on welcoming cities like Chicago. As we do, we welcomed them.”
Anna Piela is the senior writer at American Baptist Home Mission Societies and an ordained American Baptist Churches USA minister. She is also a visiting scholar in religious studies and gender at Northwestern University, and the author of “Wearing the Niqab: Muslim Women in the UK and the US.”