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I DO NOT HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS…  I probably should repeat this sentence because I am sure that folks reading this will think I am saying I have all the answers. So again, I DO NOT have all the answers. But I do have a firm understanding of our city’s history, and in this time of migrants from Latin America being bused to Democratic-run cities like Chicago from Republican-run states like Texas alongside our city’s ongoing housing issues, I thought I would add some historical context.

To start, like many Chicagoans, Black Chicagoans to be specific, I believe that the city can and should do more for the houseless and impoverished populations already here. The city can invest in public housing, increase mental health services, and remove the shackles from formerly-incarcerated individuals who have paid their debts to society.

As I understand it, a lot of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color) houseless population suffers from addiction and mental illness. In 2012, most of the city’s mental health facilities were closed under then-mayor Rahm Emanuel. In my conversations with housing providers and the houseless, I’ve learned that our houseless population has grown since those facilities closed. This is no coincidence. Because when one suffers from mental illness, getting and keeping a job to pay for housing is extremely difficult. Many of the now-closed city-run clinics were trusted facilities recommended by word of mouth on the streets. Now that they are gone, the community is less trusting of the new forms of mental health assistance being provided by the city. Most mental health services are administered through non-profit organizations that haven’t been able to maximize their potential outreach. The city should be running commercials for them on all platforms constantly.

We are in desperate need of public housing. Since the projects came down, it seems like public housing is a bad word. However, when places like Ida B. Wells Homes, the Cabrini Rowhouses (before the Greens highrises) and other housing developments were fully supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), they worked. It can work again if we are committed to supporting and maintaining those structures for our most vulnerable citizens. The barriers one must get through to get income-based housing today are far more strenuous than it was for our grandparents. Those needing help shouldn’t have to be miracle workers to get it.   

We need to remove the barriers to employment and housing for individuals with criminal records. We can’t, in one breath, acknowledge that the War on Drugs targeted Black and brown folks, while at the same time ignore the results of that targeting. There have been laws designed to prevent landlords from denying renters a place to live solely due to their records, but we know once that record presents itself, they get rejected. If your record prevents you from getting housing and a job, then you might turn to substance abuse, which brings on or enhances mental illnesses, which can make a person houseless. Perhaps since we can find money to assist the ongoing influx of migrants from Latin America (and I believe we should help the migrants), we should also find money to offer incentives to landlords that rent to felons.

NOW, PIVOTING TO THE MIGRANTS. As a public historian, it stings to hear folks say things like, “send them back” and “they’re stealing our jobs.” We are a city of migrants, and there wouldn’t be a city to send them away from without generations of migrants. Those of us who society calls minorities should stay away from using the oppressor’s playbook. We can demand more of the city without being mean to folks who, in many instances, are kidnap victims. After crossing the border into Texas, many have been placed on buses without being told where they’re going, or even given a choice in deciding their final destination.

An article from the Chicago Tribune dated April 26, 1981, showcased the diverse immigrant communities residing in Chicago. Provided by Chicago Tribune.

America has never really fully helped Haiti; we shouldn’t be surprised that Haitians are leaving their homes to come to the U.S.. American policy has drastically impacted Venezuela. We shouldn’t be surprised that folks are leaving there as well. Our country desperately needs immigration reform, but instead of Congress doing that hard work, they are too busy infighting and taking away rights. As a historian, I believe we all should know about Chicago’s migrant history. And we need to understand how Chicagoans who were already here responded to newly-arriving migrant groups. 

When the migrant group was the Irish, we blamed the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 on them. They didn’t start the fire, but after 1871, it was tough for Irish folks to find jobs for about a decade. Mrs. O’Leary’s son, Jim, became one of the biggest gamblers in the city’s history because no one would hire him. 

When the Italians came in large numbers, and SOME of them participated in bootlegging and other illegal endeavors, the Chicago press blamed ALL the crime on the Italian people. There were chants of “send them back” and meetings were held. 

When World War I caused white people to be drafted in large numbers, Black people started migrating to Chicago to fill those jobs. In response, neighborhoods in Chicago began to create restrictive racial covenants to keep Black people out of their neighborhoods. For thirty consecutive days leading up to the 1919 Race Riot, Black homes were bombed. It was said that the newly-arriving Black migrants were lowering property values across Chicago. That discrimination still exists today.

Chicago Tribune headline from Aug 1, 1919. Provided by Chicago Tribune.

On the far East Side of Chicago, they blamed the newly-arriving Mexican migrants for the loss in overtime at the steel mills. “Send them home” was a familiar chant. Steelworkers would block the doors of Catholic churches to prevent Mexican Americans from worshiping. All the crime in South Chicago and on the East Side was blamed on the Mexicans. 

When the coal mines started to close and folks from the Appalachian Mountains moved to the Uptown neighborhood, Chicagoans said they brought crime. People called them the “Hillbillies of Chicago,” and wouldn’t house them. 

When Cambodians fleeing a brutal dictator came to Chicago, folks said they brought the rats with them. 

When folks came from the Ukraine, they said those folks brought communism to Chicago. 

None of that stuff was true back then, and we now know that all those ethnic groups make Chicago what it is today. They were wrong to blame the migrants.

In 2023, governors from Republican states are sending folks to Chicago while their counterparts in Congress vote against providing funding to assist them, while also refusing to provide funds to assist those of us who were already living in Chicago. Politicians and their refusal to act and create comprehensive immigration reform are causing infighting in Chicago, a city of migrants. 

The only folks who should be saying “send them back” are the Indigenous Native Americans who were displaced via the 1833 Treaty of Chicago. The rest of us should place the blame where it belongs and remember that at one point, we were the migrants being blamed and our grandparents and great-grandparents heard the chants of “send them back,” too.

is a Chicago urban historian and the CEO of Chicago Mahogany Tours.