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The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

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Association of Latinx Students for Social Justice Discusses Initiatives Supporting New Migrants in Hyde Park

The panel consisting of policy experts, community organizers and student leaders discussed enhancing mental health resources, supporting children, and improving policymaking processes for the migrants housed in Hyde Park.
The+panel+at+I+Stand+With+Immigrants+Day+of+Action.
Feifei Mei
The panel at I Stand With Immigrants Day of Action.

The Association of Latinx Students for Social Justice (ALAS), a student-run organization housed within the Harris School of Public Policy, hosted its 8th annual “I Stand With Immigrants” Day of Action on October 25. The event featured both a panel on supporting the well-being of the migrant community from a policy and community perspective and an audience-driven cultural storytelling segment led by Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Atzlán (MEChA).

The panel consisted of Crown Family School of Social Work professor Aimee Hilado; Crown graduate student Elizabeth Sanchez; New Life Centers Community Navigator Lead Joanna Molina; Immigration Policy Analyst Nina Sedeño; First Deputy Mayor of Immigrant, Migrant, and Refugee Rights Rey Wences Nájera; and Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights CEO Lawrence Benito.

Co-president of ALAS and second-year Masters of Public Policy and Masters of Divinity student Michael Hernández moderated the panel. “We need all of you, now, more than ever…Some of us were lucky to find a path to legal status. It is our job to protect people in our community by advocating for them,” Hernández said.

The discussion first focused on supporting migrants’ mental health. Hilado pointed out that the shortage of bilingual and bicultural therapists was a national problem. As a member of the Coalition for Immigrant Mental Health, she works with her colleagues from Lurie Children’s Hospital to teach frontline workers to adopt universal strategies for validating trauma and stress responses. She also trains them to identify red flags so they can connect migrants in need with specialized mental health care. “We want them to thrive, not simply survive,” she said.

One common mental health problem that migrants face is ambiguous loss. “One major trend I’ve seen is the role of grief and loss, specifically an ambiguous loss,” Sanchez said. “Migrants are not able to travel and physically see family members in person, beyond the virtual world, [not] able to hug, [not] able to embrace—not being in that physical presence really impacts their mental health and resistance.”

Children, in particular, require more support. “A lot of stress and trauma in young children will get in the way of them forming peer relationships…As much as we talk about stabilizing adults, there are unique things that we can do for children and youth: creating routines, supporting their caregivers, [giving them] a way of feeling that they are in space and they know where they are,” Hilado said.

To address this, Molina’s team at New Life Centers organizes specially designed events. New Life Centers was founded by New Life Community Church, and it initiated the New Vecinos program in May 2023 to help new migrants furnish and move into their apartments. They organize donation drives for winter clothing and furniture. “[We are also] taking kids out of the shelters so they can be kids, so adults can interact with adults so they don’t have to just sit in a shelter. One of the rising problems at shelters is that they have nothing to do. If we can have more people from Chicago communities work together, we can hopefully have them thriving sooner,” she said.

Beyond community efforts to support vulnerable migrant groups, the panelists agreed that more must be done on the policy end to tackle structural problems. “These systems were not made to be systems of care that encompass everyone…Policies that have passed have neglected communities, [and] I remember there were times when I didn’t even have access to the rooms that I’m opening the door to now for organizers to come in,” Nájera said.

As a city official with a background in community organization, Nájera noted the different responsibilities that community-based organizations and city officials have. “The way that I see my role in the city now is about empowering people with information, and I hope that this information helps [them] in strategizing and power mapping…It’s about connecting the dots, it’s about communicating, [and] making sure that we are doing the best we can with what we have,” they said.

Panelists raised long-term housing solutions, work authorization, and accessibility of public programs as key policy priorities.

“Many families are hesitant to use public programs available for them because of concerns with immigration down the line,” Sedeño said. She also said that policymakers need to let migrants themselves have a seat at the decision-making table.

However, policymakers in Chicago face severe constraints in terms of resources; help from multiple levels is necessary to address a problem of this scale. “The city alone obviously can do a lot, but it can’t do everything, and we’re trying to work with other municipalities [and] Cook County in particular,” Benito said. He also acknowledged the complexity of the issue. “[We understand] that there were folks who were homeless prior to this, and so how do we change the shelter and housing system for everyone, and [build] the power that we need to get there?…[We are] trying to figure out how [we can] do better in pushing for a better system for everyone.”

MEChA then led the audience through a cultural storytelling exercise. Third-year Kaitlyn Miranda, president of MEChA, explained that storytelling is a “traditional form of resistance” and invited the audience to share with each other their responses to prompts like “What comfort does your culture bring you?” and “Part of the colonial process is to discourage us from imagining—with open possibility, describe your utopia for immigrants.”

As visualized throughout the storytelling exercise, the event, open to both University members and the general public, brought together people from a variety of backgrounds united by a common interest. “Because I’m [in] a leadership position, I would like to learn more about what other nationalities are experiencing and maybe we can learn something from them,” Almira Astudillo Gilles, interim executive director of the National Federation of Filipino American Association, said.

Throughout the panel and cultural storytelling, the speakers and audience were cognizant of the magnitude and scale of the challenge to help migrants integrate into Hyde Park but reiterated their commitment to the cause. “We will continue to fight because we believe that’s what people deserve,” Benito said.

This migrant crisis is neither a new problem nor the last of its kind. The work accomplished in Hyde Park will not only help current migrants, but also migrants in the future. “I hope we can set a better foundation for the next wave of people that decide to make [Chicago] their home, whether that’s new arrivals coming from Venezuela, climate refugees, [or even] LGBTQ+ people [from] other states where there’s been a huge spike in anti-LGBTQ+ bills,” Nájera said. “We have done this before, [and] this is just another iteration…We’re not going to flinch.”

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