Episcopal churches, ecumenical partners address crisis as asylum-seekers continue to arrive daily in Chicago

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Aug 1, 2023

Migrants, without a place to stay upon arrival in Chicago, Illinois, seek safe shelter inside the District 12 station of the Chicago Police Department on May 17, 2023. Photo: Eric Cox/REUTERS

[Episcopal News Service – Chicago, Illinois] Over the last year, more than 11,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in Chicago, Illinois, by private bus from Texas, and the numbers continue to rise as the city faces a humanitarian crisis because its shelters are overcapacity.

For a year Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been bussing asylum-seekers to Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and other cities that are designated “sanctuary cities” daily as a “protest against immigration policies.” These cities have passed laws that protect undocumented migrants from deportation or prosecution by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement despite federal law prohibiting illegal immigration.” Chicago designated itself a “sanctuary city” in 1985.

The first busload of asylum-seekers arrived at Chicago’s Union Station from Texas in late August last year.

“Most of the time, the asylum-seekers either have no idea where they’re heading, or they think they’ll arrive at their intended final destinations to reunite with families already settled in the United States, only to end up surprised that they ended up in Chicago instead,” said the Rev. Steven Balke, canon for outreach and pastoral care at St. James Cathedral in downtown Chicago.

Episcopal churches throughout Chicago are partnering with area faith-based and secular nonprofit organizations to assist asylum-seekers as they arrive in the city. Efforts include using churches as emergency housing sites and providing transportation for asylum-seekers needing to meet with immigration officials, among others.

With shelters overcapacity, asylum-seekers have been forced to sleep in police stations and at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports, while others stay temporarily at community college dorms and hotels paid for by the city.

The Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chicago’s Old Irving Park neighborhood, told Episcopal News Service that asylum-seekers staying at the police stations sleep on hard floors under fluorescent lights with no access to showers or washing machines. Because no one is allowed to store their belongings inside the police stations while the facilities are being cleaned during the day, asylum-seekers must wait outside with their belongings until they can go back inside to avoid theft.

To help alleviate some of the discomforts, Wagner Sherer and other volunteers at St. John’s started tallying how many people were staying at police stations on any given day and delivering food to them. Additionally, St. John’s has collected clothes, shoes, luggage and other necessities and has donated them to city-run shelters. Members of the St. John’s community have also raised money to help asylum-seekers pay for temporary living expenses and legal fees.

“Getting involved in a local organization that supports asylum-seekers can really help with getting to know people and responding to needs that are nearby,” Wagner Sherer said.

In 2019, Chicago’s diocesan convention voted to become a “sanctuary diocese.” It also established a Sanctuary Task Force, which provides education and networking resources to help local congregations, clergy and lay people effectively engage in migration ministries. The task force was established in response to the Trump administration’s policies that separated families by targeting and deporting undocumented immigrants. The diocese is also a member of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, an organization promoting the rights of immigrants and refugees to participate in civic and social life.

“This is 1 Corinthians 12, that we are all part of the body of Christ, but we are many different parts,” Balke said. “The dignity of every human being is seeing the human being in the refugee, in the immigrant, in the asylum-seeker. It’s seeing them first as a human being worthy of dignity.”

The Rev. Sandra Castillo, chair of the Sanctuary Task Force, told ENS that every church and individual Episcopalian can do something to help asylum-seekers during the crisis, and congregations that are already helping have taken up unique roles to help. For example, Castillo and other volunteers will arrange to pick up asylum-seekers stranded at an airport or police station and help them settle into more suitable temporary housing, including her parish, Santa Teresa de Ávila Episcopal Church in the historic Pilsen neighborhood, which is one of two Chicago neighborhoods historically home to Mexican immigrants. As a retired lawyer, Castillo also connects asylum-seekers with immigration lawyers to help them complete immigration forms.

“We have to take on what we’re capable of doing at any point in time … we can support each other,” Castillo said.

Several Episcopal parishes have established ministries to address the specific needs of asylum-seekers, who often arrive in Chicago with little more than the clothes they’re wearing. For example, St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood started Chrys’ Closet, a donation-based clothing ministry that rapidly grew into a weekly initiative run by volunteers. The ministry has expanded beyond just clothing and shoes, and now offers other necessities for donation, including furniture, toiletries, school supplies, luggage, baby strollers, toys and more. Now every Wednesday, as many as 150 asylum-seekers gather at St. Chrysostom’s to collect clothing and basic living essentials.

The ministry continues to provide basic essentials for asylum-seekers, most of whom cannot afford to buy them. Asylum-seekers are ineligible for work during the first five months of the application process and don’t have access to income.

An asylum-seeker picks out clothing at St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church in Chicago, Illinois. The church’s clothing ministry, Chrys’ Closet, provides clothes and other necessities for asylum-seekers in need of essentials. Photo: Dell Hall

Liz Kohlbeck leads St. Chrysostom’s feeding ministries and is also involved with the church’s clothing ministry. She told ENS that some interfaith partners, including colleagues from the local Jewish community, have helped support the ministry by donating goods. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago has also been “a big supporter to begin with” by donating dozens of large boxes of toys, clothes and school supplies for children. Fellow Episcopal churches have donated weather-appropriate clothes to St. Chrys’ Closet, as well.

“Every life has value, and, for me, the children are a big part of all of this crisis and for many of the people that do this kind of work,” Kohlbeck said. “Children need to know that there is grace in this world.”

Over the past two years, more than 250,000 unaccompanied children have arrived in the United States. Asylum-seekers leave their home countries for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to war, violence and persecution over race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. More than 1.3 million people currently have open asylum claims in the United States.

Asylum-seekers are not just living in major U.S. cities; the need for assistance is nationwide. Episcopal Migration Ministries hosts an asylum and detention ministry network that virtually meets every month to address best practices in supporting asylum-seekers through advocacy, community education and networking.

“[This kind of network] would be helpful for other Episcopalians who are responding to this kind of thing in their own communities,” said Allison Duvall, EMM’s senior manager for church relations and engagement.

Although the terms migrants and asylum-seekers are often used interchangeably, not all migrants are asylum-seekers. The latter are people seeking protection from persecution or violence but who haven’t yet been legally recognized as refugees. 

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration issued Title 42, a policy that blocked land entry for migrants at the U.S. border and denied the right to seek asylum. The Biden administration ended Title 42 in May and reverted federal laws back to the longstanding Title 8 policy, which allows for asylum claims based on certain criteria. Seeking asylum is a human right protected under federal law.

“There’s this narrative that this crisis just foisted upon us when Title 42 lifted, but it’s not true; the asylum-seekers have been coming [to Chicago] for a while now, and we were already in trouble before this change happened,” said Douglas Fraser, executive director of the Chicago Help Initiative, a secular nonprofit organization dedicated to providing access to meals, health services, shelter and employment to Chicagoans who are homeless, financially disadvantaged or out of work, as well as asylum-seekers.

In addition to serving meals to people every Wednesday inside Catholic Charities, the Chicago Help Initiative has also partnered with other faith-based organizations throughout the city, including Fourth Presbyterian Church, First Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church, St. Chrysostom Episcopal Church and others, to distribute meals. St. James Cathedral also provides meals to hundreds of people, including asylum-seekers, every month.

Because the asylum process can take years, Balke, Castillo and others stressed the need for pro-bono immigration lawyers and Spanish-language interpreters to help asylum-seekers staying in the Chicago area. Castillo also stressed the importance of advocacy work to help asylum-seekers because “this is a federal issue, so all of the policy issues are stemming from what’s going down in Washington, D.C.”

The Episcopal Church has a long history of advocating for comprehensive immigration reform. Episcopalians interested in learning more about the church’s advocacy efforts can visit the Episcopal Public Policy Network’s website.

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.