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Chicago Mayor, Shelter Officials Respond to Living Conditions Following a Borderless Investigation

By and December 21, 2023February 13th, 2024Immigration Policy, Investigation

The response comes just days after a 5-year-old boy fell sick and died, and others were hospitalized.

Sebastián Hidalgo for Borderless Magazine
A child leaves a candle at a vigil to mourn the death of Juan Carlo Martinez Rivero on Wednesday, Dec. 20th, 2023, across the street from Chicago’s largest migrant shelter on S. Halsted Street in Pilsen.
By and December 21, 2023February 13th, 2024Immigration Policy, Investigation

The response comes just days after a 5-year-old boy fell sick and died, and others were hospitalized.

Illuminated by orange-tinted street lamps and handheld candles, hundreds of people stood in silence Wednesday night across the street from Chicago’s largest migrant shelter to grieve the loss of five-year-old Jean Carlo Martinez Rivero, who died just days earlier. 


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Outside the former manufacturing building turned shelter, mourners stared downcast, some with tears streaming down their faces — anguished and frustrated over the young boy’s death.  

“We are standing here tonight in total solidarity with the migrants to say we love you, we see you,” said Britt Hodgdon, a volunteer and social worker. “We do not stand for this. You are our fellow human beings, and you deserve better.” 

In the face of mounting criticism, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson said the city was investigating Jean Carlo’s death and would update safety protocols based on their findings. The five-year-old’s death has underscored growing concerns about the safety of the city’s temporary shelters that have been hurriedly opened to house thousands of migrants bused and flown into the city from Texas and other Southern states.   

“Chicago continues to prioritize safety and improving our New Arrivals Mission, but any life lost prematurely is a grave tragedy,” Johnson said in a statement Monday. “The death of a child is a deeply tragic event, and our condolences go out to the Martinez Rivero family.”

On Sunday, the five-year-old boy became sick and was taken to Comer’s Children’s Hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. The boy’s death came three days after Borderless released an investigation on the shelter’s inhumane conditions, including a lack of medical care and the rationing of water. 

City officials have struggled to house thousands of migrants bused and flown in from Texas and other border states over the last 15 months. Some 30,000 migrants have arrived since August 2022, according to the city’s public dashboard. The city is housing nearly 14,000 migrants across 27 temporary shelters. 

Earlier this week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott charted a private plane carrying 100 asylum seekers to Chicago, with handlers fleeing before being questioned by police, Block Club Chicago reported. “It is human trafficking,” one advocate said of Texas officials’ tactics.

“We are at a critical point in the humanitarian crisis and the city is facing the challenge to provide shelter for the daily influx of new arrivals sent to Chicago from the southern border,” Johnson said in a statement. “All temporary emergency shelters that have been opened were selected due to the large capacity they can safely serve; the facility is in good condition, requires minimal upgrades and are available for emergency activation within a short timeframe.”

Before opening, city officials told Pilsen residents at a community meeting that the shelter would eventually house 1,000 people, but the number of residents has more than doubled in a short period. About 2,300 residents currently live at the facility. 

A line to enter Chicago’s largest migrant shelter in Pilsen on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023.Sebastián Hidalgo for Borderless Magazine

More than a dozen migrants shared their experience with Borderless for the magazine’s recent investigation on the condition of anonymity for fear of hurting their immigration case and getting kicked out of the Pilsen shelter. They lamented the harsh shelter conditions, including cramped living quarters, mistreatment from workers, freezing temperatures, and unsanitary bathrooms.

In recent weeks, migrants described outbreaks of various illnesses, including chickenpox, the flu, and upper respiratory infections, spreading without sufficient medical attention. Some people who were sick were being isolated in parts of the shelter, according to migrants.

Several other people in the shelter, including three children, have been hospitalized with upper respiratory infections. But the Chicago Department of Public Health said those illnesses did not appear related, there was no evidence of an outbreak at the shelter, and the boy’s death did not appear to have been from an infectious disease. The five-year-old’s autopsy is still pending, according to the Medical Examiner’s office.

Inside the shelter, migrants said staff has been doubling down on threats to kick out anyone caught filming or taking photos inside the shelter. During a recent medical emergency, migrants said staff turned off lights and scolded some people for trying to look through windows. 

When city officials did a walk-through earlier this week following outcries from Chicagoans over the shelter’s conditions, migrants told Borderless that shelter staff replenished bathrooms with toilet paper and soap only to remove them after city officials had left.

“We need help getting out of here,” one man said. “There are a lot of people with respiratory problems, with high fevers. This shelter is not liveable for anyone.”

In a statement to Borderless, Favorite Healthcare Staffing, who has received nearly $100 million to run migrant shelters, including the one on Halsted, said they “take the safety and well-being of all shelter residents seriously.”

“Our team is working closely with the City of Chicago and other authorities to support an investigation into what occurred.”

Asked about the safety of living conditions at the Pilsen shelter, Johnson, at a press conference earlier this week, said people were being dropped off by bus in some of the “worst health conditions.” 

“They’re just dropping off people anywhere. Do you understand how raggedy and how evil that is? [You’re] just going to put people on a bus and drop them off in the middle of the night? And then you want to hold us accountable for something that’s happening down at the border? It’s sickening.”

“This shelter is not liveable for anyone.”

Johnson said the city provides onsite medical care, but told reporters migrants were showing up sick, traumatized and hungry.

“The governor of Texas needs to take a look in the mirror of the chaos that he is causing for this country. This is not just a Chicago dynamic. He is attacking our country — the sensibility and the civility of our country. He is attacking that,” Johnson said. 

During the combative press conference, Johnson dismissed a reporter’s question on whether the city would re-evaluate housing people in warehouses not meant for habitation. “How about we re-evaluate all of our international policies that are causing the chaos that we are experiencing right now? And let’s evaluate the sanctity of someone in Texas who disregards people. That’s what we should be re-evaluating.”

But a collective group of volunteers across Chicago said the boy’s death was a result of disregard for health and safety standards. The coalition of mutual aid groups has warned the city about shelter conditions for months and has stepped in to try to address the needs of migrants where the city has fallen short.

“This was a preventable death. And it was 100% expected,” Hodgdon said at the vigil Wednesday night. “We knew this was coming. We’ve been raising the alarms for months and months and months.” 

Britt Hodgdon, a social worker and volunteer, talks to the press during a vigil for 5-year-old boy, Juan Carlo Martinez Rivero in Pilsen on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023. Sebastián Hidalgo for Borderless Magazine

The vigil was to show solidarity with migrants and to hold Johnson, Gov. JB Pritzker and other government officials accountable, Hodgdon and other mutual aid volunteers said.

“This was a preventable death. And it was 100% expected.”

The mutual aid coalition is demanding better shelter conditions and the cancellation of the Favorite Healthcare Staffing contract. They also call for official oversight and inspections of the shelters and more robust health care access and disease prevention efforts.

“We have a responsibility,” Hodgdon said. “Brandon Johnson can show up on any podium he wants and tell us people got here sick, but they’re here now, and they’re humans. And we call ourselves a sanctuary city. So let’s live up to it.”