It’s been two months since migrants began arriving in Chicago by busload from Texas — part of a move by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, to send migrants arriving at his state’s border to Democratic-led cities.
Among the nearly 3,700 migrants who have been bused to Chicago, at least 425 are school-aged children. Many of these migrants are seeking asylum.
State records indicate these students have enrolled in 12 different school districts, including Chicago Public Schools and several suburban districts. Data on children under age 5 was not provided, but a spokesperson for the Illinois governor’s office said they are being offered child care and access to early learning programs.
More than 150 of the students are in Chicago Public Schools, but a district spokesperson did not say which schools have seen an influx of migrant students.
In a letter to elected officials, Chuck Swirsky, senior advisor to CPS CEO Pedro Martinez, wrote that migrant families are being “placed in hotels outside of the city by the State and students have also enrolled in the appropriate suburban districts.”
Swirsky’s letter came in response to one sent by aldermen, teachers, and activists to Martinez and Mayor Lori Lightfoot asking them to live up to their promise to make Chicago a “Sanctuary City.”
That letter listed several demands, including that the mayor and the school district use federal COVID recovery money to help asylum-seeking students, provide translated curriculum, and hire more bilingual staff and a translator for every school.
“We’re talking about an unfolding humanitarian crisis of children and families who arrive with no shoes. That is on the daily at our schools and we’re supposed to make do?” said Gabriel Paez, a bilingual coordinator at Cameron Elementary in Humboldt Park.
The number of bilingual teachers, assistants, and other staff who work with bilingual students has declined steadily over the last five years, according to district staffing data. Specifically, there are around 350 fewer bilingual teachers than there were in 2018.
Meanwhile, bilingual students now make up 22% of the district’s student population. Despite declining enrollment, the number of bilingual students has grown from 69,282 students during the 2018-19 school year to 72,029 this year.
Linda Perales, a Chicago Teachers Union organizer and bilingual special education teacher, said the union contract settled in 2019 included an agreement that the union and school district would release a joint letter declaring schools “sanctuary spaces,” but the district has not yet done so.
“We need the support to make sure that our students have what they need no matter whether they’ve been the students for five days or five years or their entire life,” Perales said at a press conference outside City Hall last week.
Rebecca Martinez, the union’s director of organizing, said she was aware of one elementary school in Belmont Cragin that welcomed 14 migrant students. She noted that the buses arriving from Texas are not the only migrants who are coming to Chicago.
“We’ve heard from members that are saying, ‘We’ve had more newcomers this year than we’ve ever had in a given year,’” Martinez said.
Martinez said the district could apply for federal grants under the Refugee School Impact Program. She said that money could have helped build an infrastructure for supporting migrant students. But a city spokesperson noted that grant is specifically for refugees. District budget data show CPS only got around $50,000 annually from that program until 2020.
Schools that have enrolled new students are being offered additional money or staff, according to the district’s letter to elected officials. Both Chicago and Illinois officials indicated that schools are also able to use money earmarked for homeless students to support migrants.
Chicago Public Schools has also convened a Newcomer Strategy Team that works with the Mayor’s Office of New Americans and community organizations to provide additional support to asylum-seekers, according to the district’s letter. In addition, district officials meet once a month with the union on issues related to bilingual education.
CORRECTION: Nov. 10, 2022: This article has been updated to clarify the amount and nature of the Refugee School Impact Program.
Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at firstname.lastname@example.org.