Immigration, amnesty and the fight to unify the working class

By Dan Fein
February 19, 2024

CHICAGO — Over 34,000 immigrant workers seeking asylum have arrived here since August 2022, sent by bus or plane by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Most are from Venezuela and other countries in Latin America. Some 15,000 are currently staying in city-run shelters, with the threat of eviction hanging over their heads.

For months, thousands were camped inside and outside of police stations and at the city’s airports. It’s increasingly common to see women with young children, or whole families, begging or selling candy on the street, men seeking day labor outside Home Depot stores.

There have been protests against the city government’s moves to use park facilities as temporary shelters, displacing already scarce recreational programs. Plans to set up two “winterized” tent camps in neighborhoods on the city’s South Side have generated opposition, and were eventually abandoned. One of the proposed locations was contaminated with toxic chemicals.

There have been numerous reports of unsafe and unsanitary conditions in the shelters. Reporters aren’t allowed inside. Members of the City Council must give 48 hours notice if they want to visit.

Last fall officials set a 60-day limit for immigrants to stay in the shelters. The first evictions were scheduled to take place in January — the coldest month of the year. Mayor Brandon Johnson extended the deadline, with evictions now to begin in March.

The Illinois state government has offered some of the asylum-seekers rental assistance for a few months. But then residents are supposed to pay market rate. There is supposed to be a process for some immigrants to apply for work permits from the federal government, but so far only about 1,000 workers have received them.

Chicago is a self-declared “Sanctuary City.” The city government website says, “The City will not ask about your immigration status, disclose that information to authorities, or, most importantly, deny you City services based on your immigration status.”

But what is unfolding in Chicago today underscores the fact there is no “sanctuary” for workers here, with or without “proper” papers.

‘Build unions, unite working class’

Supporters of the Socialist Workers Party here have been campaigning with a statement by Naomi Craine, SWP candidate for U.S. Congress, titled, “Amnesty for all undocumented workers! Fight for jobs for all workers! Build the unions to unite the working class!”

“Newly arrived immigrants are pitted against workers who already face a lack of jobs, affordable housing, decent schools and other needs,” Craine says. “The fight for jobs and unity among workers to cut across these divisions is a life-and-death question for the unions.

“The Socialist Workers Party campaigns for the unions to lead a fight for amnesty for all workers who are here, so that we’re in a stronger position to fight together,” she says. “The unions must lead a fight to demand a government-funded public works program to put unemployed workers to work building housing, schools, clinics and other facilities workers need.”

“I agree we need amnesty for the migrants and jobs for them, but too many are coming to Chicago,” Vickie Gilmore, a disabled worker who worked for the Salvation Army, told this Militant  worker-correspondent at her door on the South Side. “They need to spread them out beyond the city.”

That has become a point of contention between Mayor Johnson and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, both Democrats, with the mayor demanding the state fund more shelters outside Chicago.

The city government is now imposing penalties on bus operators dropping passengers off outside designated time slots. So buses coming from Texas began dropping immigrants at suburban train stations, where they were provided with a ticket into the city. Some suburban governments have since passed ordinances putting restrictions on when buses can arrive there.

“I see both sides. People are hungry, desperate. I understand why they come,” Delilah Campos, who works as a caregiver, told SWP candidate Craine outside her apartment in the mostly Latino Little Village neighborhood Feb. 3. “But now is not a good time. Everything is so expensive, especially housing.”

In both 2021 and 2022, rent increases hit double-digits in Chicago, and in November 2023 rents were up again by 5.3%. Evictions by the Cook County sheriff’s office are rising.

“The bosses try to use immigration to increase competition for jobs and drive down wages for all workers,” Craine said. “That’s one reason we don’t support calls to ‘open the border.’ But our problem is not fellow workers from other countries — it’s the bosses and their profit drive.

“That’s why we need to demand amnesty for undocumented workers, so we’re in a stronger position to build unions together and fight for jobs for all workers. And we need to organize our own party, a labor party, based on the unions, instead of looking to the capitalists’ Democratic and Republican parties,” Craine said. “We need to organize as a working class in our own interests.

“That’s the opposite of looking for charity or government handouts. That’s the road to become strong enough as a class to replace this dictatorship of capital with a government of working people.”

Campos said she hadn’t thought about things that way, and decided to subscribe to the Militant  to find out more.