Chicago police investigated over alleged sexual misconduct with asylum seekers | US immigration

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US immigration

Reports that an officer allegedly impregnated an 18-year-old and another had ‘sexual contact with an underage female migrant’

Alma Campos in Chicago

Fri 22 Sep 2023 09.00 EDT

The Chicago police department is under investigation for allegations of sexual misconduct with recently arrived asylum seekers who are living in several police precincts across the city.

One case features an officer who allegedly impregnated an 18-year-old.

The investigation follows a report that a police officer had “sexual contact with an unidentified underage female migrant, and indicated [that] several other unidentified officers … may also have engaged in similar misconduct”, Andrea Kersten, chief administrator of civilian office of police accountability (Copa), the city agency that investigates police misconduct, said at a summer press conference.

Chicago has received 14,000 asylum seekers since August 2022. More than 7,000 are currently being accommodated in citywide shelters but almost 2,000 are living on the floors of police precincts in almost every law enforcement district of the city.

People are also sleeping rough at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports, and more arrive daily, some bussed there by Texas authorities who refused to liaise with the Democratic-led cities where they dispatch people who have crossed the US-Mexico border and have applied for asylum.

Yolexi Cubillan, 19, sits on the floor while waiting in line with other migrants at an Illinois department of human services office on 28 August in Chicago. Photograph: Chicago Tribune/TNS

Investigations are ongoing and began in July after claims from a city employee working at one police precinct prompted city officials to quickly move asylum seekers to another location, but then things got murky when Copa announced that officials had not identified any asylum seekers claiming to be victims of sexual misconduct by police officers. The agency said the investigation would continue and, since then, there have been no public updates.

The Guardian requested comment from the mayor’s office and Copa but received no response.

The Illinois Democratic congressman Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, who has joined calls for the Biden administration to expand work permits and provide more federal resources, said in a statement: “Our migrant neighbors came to Chicago seeking safety and stability. Police officers are sworn to protect our communities, not engage in illegal sexual conduct with teenagers and others in their care. This alleged behavior is completely unacceptable. I expect the city’s investigation to be timely, thorough, transparent, and lead to accountability for all who are found guilty.”

As Chicago has struggled to quickly find temporary housing for thousands, asylum seekers have been obliged to bed down in police precinct lobbies, where reports vary from station to station on the quality of living conditions and what reception families have had from the cops working there.

One single mother, Nelli Reina, arrived in Chicago from Colombia in early September, after being bussed from the southern border with her 14-month-old-son.

“More than anything, I’m worried about the cold, because we sleep on the cold floor,” she told the Guardian in Spanish last week at precinct 12 on the Near West Side, while she waits for a shelter place.

At many precincts, bedding and belongings are stacked up by the windows during the day to clear walkways, and often piled outside.

A migrant father from Venezuela entertains his 17-month-old daughter in the lobby of a police station in Chicago, where they have been staying with other migrant families since their arrival to the city. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

As winter beckons, the new mayor, Brandon Johnson, a progressive, had talked about about erecting heated tents and shortly after that signed a $29m contract with a private security firm to install them, particularly for asylum seekers staying at police precincts and the airports, Crain’s Chicago Business and the Chicago Tribune reported.

The company, GardaWorld Federal Services, already has a state contract with Illinois but is a highly controversial choice because of its role in heavily criticized migrant detention and relocations programs in other states, the Tribune further reported.

Reina said: “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be here. It’s the first time I’m in this country and I don’t know the matter of the cold and all that, of the snow. So we are praying and asking God to get us out of here soon.”

As she spoke, she and others opened up a trash bag filled with children’s clothes that a community volunteer had just dropped off.

Reina told the Guardian that just a few days ago, her son ended up at the hospital.

“He hadn’t eaten and he started to asphyxiate and cough a lot,” she said. “When we arrived at the hospital, they put him on a machine for asphyxiation, and they put me outside for dehydration.” Reina is diabetic and her blood sugar levels frequently drop due to lack of proper nutrition. She has been asking city employees if she can be transferred to a shelter, where she thought at least her son would have a warm bed to sleep in and could eat better, she said.

Mayor Brandon Johnson listens to debate over funding for migrant aid in the city council chambers on 31 May. Photograph: Chicago Tribune/TNS

Chicago’s response to the increase in arriving migrants is shared by various city departments and partner organizations, the office of emergency management said. The office did not give details about how and why migrants end up at police precincts and what protocols and procedures are in place.

Diana Alpizar, director of career pathways at the Instituto del Progreso Latino, a non-profit organization in Chicago that provides education opportunities to immigrants, has been coordinating volunteer efforts at one police station, with some city funding.

She was sorting socks, towels, diapers and other basics at her office for newly arrived families, which she put in bags ready for distribution.

For asylum seekers staying at the precinct, Alpizar said: “The rule is to stay outside after 10am while the inside is cleaned and disinfected and people can come back inside when it’s time for bed.”

In her opinion, the staff is “indifferent” and not “sympathizing”, she said. Police officers declined to talk to the Guardian.

Precinct 12 is currently housing 10 to 15 families. There is one bathroom with a single toilet, sink and mirror, which the migrants are not supposed to use. Some started going to a splash pad for kids in a nearby public park to clean themselves, but Maria Bolivar, another woman sleeping at the precinct, said that the water playground was then closed and she believes the water supply was “locked” to stop migrants using it. Bolivar came to the US with her children aged nine and 11 from Venezuela.

She said she fills up cups with water to pour on herself and her children to clean them. Then she dries off with a towel and said she also dries the floor and cleans thoroughly so that the staff doesn’t notice any mess.

Another Venezuelan, Yannis Soto, said: “We are in a place that we have to keep clean so that people don’t speak ill of us.”

Asylum seekers in a temporary shelter on 10 May in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood after traveling from Venezuela. Photograph: Chicago Tribune/TNS

A volunteer at another precinct said the asylum seekers she helps are desperate to work and fend for themselves while their applications go through the legal system, and one told her she meticulously cleans the police bathroom to “make sure it’s neat so they don’t close the doors on us”.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration, under pressure from some senior Democrats in Washington, state governors and city mayors, said it would grant temporary legal status to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan asylum seekers already in the US, quickly making them eligible to work.

A local church provides food most days. City shelters, meanwhile, provide three meals a day, and Alpizar said the situation is more stable as asylum seekers are connected to a case manager to assist them with their immigration applications, and also to social services and possible housing.

But people have reported problems at shelters too, however, including two women who told local news outlet Block Club Chicago that they were not given enough food and some of it was moldy. They also reported cold showers and strict rules preventing volunteers bringing supplies to them.

Alpizar said that once at a shelter, asylum seekers begin working with a case manager who takes on their immigration cases. But not everyone will qualify for asylum. Some get permission to stay and work, some will get deported or end up living a precarious, undocumented life. “They get lost in the shadows,” she said.

Meanwhile, Reina received blankets for her son and clothes from the volunteers. She’s waiting for news about a shelter. “They took my name down and gave me and my baby a number: 214. I don’t really know what my luck will be,” she said.

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