Tens of thousands of immigrants are helping, not hurting Chicago
Ronny Reyes, 22, leaves a temporary shelter for migrants at Piotrowski Park with his 5-month-old daughter Magaly Melende, Thursday, March 28, 2024, in Chicago. | Erin Hooley/AP

CHICAGO – If you believe right-wing and Trump’s MAGA propaganda Chicago, by now, should be overrun with criminal immigrants creating bedlam on the city’s streets. Southern Republican governors have sent tens of thousands of immigrants by train, bus, and plane into the nation’s “Second City.” Trump has described immigrants as “animals” who should be “rounded up” and who will be put into concentration camps if he wins the election in November.

A look at Chicago, now home to tens of thousands of new immigrants, gives the total lie to all the scare stories perpetrated by the right. The immigrants are using every means available to find productive work. Ones who have proper documents are being scooped up by employers who need the workers. Unite HERE, the union, and Mayor Brandon Johnson are struggling to get all of them the permits to enable them to work legally.

Meanwhile, there is barely a supermarket in town where immigrants are not seen assisting people with carrying groceries to their cars and collecting either the modest tips from the folks they help or the quarters that pop out when they push the carts back onto their racks. The overwhelming majority of shoppers smile and dig into their wallets, which are often almost bare when it comes to money, and hand over what is often their last bill to the man or woman helping them.

In the Bridgeport neighborhood last weekend two immigrants were spotted painting the front porch of a house in need of spring cleaning.

Joined the union and the mayor

A big Unite HERE local, area immigrants and other civic groups joined Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson on April 4 to urge the Biden administration to approve permanent work permits for immigrants, not just for the new arrivals but for many who have been in the U.S. for years.

Almost simultaneously, Biden’s Citizenship and Immigration Service announced a year-and-a-half extension of the work permit program, via a temporary emergency federal rule, starting April 8 and covering 800,000 people nationwide. The Chicagoans calculate some 480,000 migrants to Illinois alone are now eligible for permits.

Unite HERE Local 1 President Karen Kent and Marriott Medical District room attendant Ana Sanchez were among the roundtable participants in the meeting at the Chicago Urban League’s offices. The mayor and other speakers want extended permits for migrants to Illinois, including reinstating workers whose permits expired when a prior permit program ended last October.

The roundtable meeting followed a March 23 public rally in the Daley Center Plaza in the Loop where both Kent and Sanchez laid out the case for extending the permits, permanently.

“Our immigration system is broken. We need comprehensive immigration reform to fix it. In the meantime, work permits for all is an important step forward,” Kent said then.

“In addition to a union card, the best form of protection for an immigrant worker comes in the form of a green card. We will never stop fighting for every hospitality worker to be covered by a union contract and we will never stop fighting for comprehensive immigration reform because immigrant rights are union rights. Si se puede.”

“It is sad to see how many of my family, friends, and acquaintances, who have been part of this country for many years, who strive every day and contribute to the workforce, continue to suffer discrimination, injustice, bad treatment, and retaliation for not having a legal permit,” Sanchez explained then.

With a work permit, “They would not be afraid to raise their voices against injustice, because above all, they could greatly improve the quality of their life and that of their families.”

The Rev. Primo Racimo, pastor of St. Margaret of Scotland Episcopal Church on the South Side, himself a Filipino immigrant, has been raising a variety of pro-immigrant issues in meetings after Mass at his church. Immigrants have always been the vital ingredient in the U.S.,” he said, “contributing to all the things important to us as a people. You don’t see any crime wave here in Chicago being perpetrated by the immigrants. That’s all a lie pushed by the MAGA people. These are good people who want to work and want to contribute. You can’t follow Jesus and espouse hatred of immigrants at the same time.”

His church is made up of African Americans, immigrants who came from West Africa years ago, and white working-class people.

Chicagoans, and other migrant rights groups nationwide, are in a coalition under the hashtag #workpermitsforall and are campaigning for permanent work permits for the migrants, permits that go even further than the ones Biden has endorsed. Biden announced a permit extension, of 540 days. It’s the second such long permit extension in three years. The last 540-day extension ran out just before Halloween, leaving remaining work permits good for only six months. Some of those six-month permits expire in three weeks.

The Biden administration announcement said migrants whose permits expired when the prior long extension died can continue to work here for a year while Biden’s backlogged Citizenship and Immigration Service officials consider applications, CIS officials told Government Executive magazine’s website. Migrants approved for permanent permits would get five-year cards.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.