Chicago’s migrant communities forced to rely on mutual aid for healthcare

Health care provision for migrants in Chicago remains reliant on mutual aid and volunteer initiatives as winter approaches. Over 21,000 migrants, primarily from Latin America, have come to Chicago since August 2022

December 05, 2023 by Candice Choo-Kang
Migrants stay in camping tents in Chicago in October 2023. Photo: Candice Choo-Kang

Since August 2022, Chicago has welcomed over 21,000 migrants, primarily from Latin America. However, the city’s plans to properly accommodate these newcomers have faced challenges, raising concerns as winter approaches. To address the migrants’ needs, the city has turned to mutual aid. Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration is urging people to donate coats to the new residents, and similar calls for assistance have been extended to the healthcare sector.

What medical care looks like for migrants at police stations

The Cook County migrant health clinics are only accessible to those staying in shelters, leaving thousands without medical care. Over 1,000 people were still housed at Chicago police stations as of November 15 – the lowest number in weeks. If any medical attention is required for migrants staying at police stations, the only options are federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) or going to the emergency room. Getting appointments at FQHCs can be difficult due to limited space. Emergency rooms, particularly in large US cities like Chicago, have long wait times and can be hectic. A volunteer reported that one migrant family took their daughter to the emergency room but was never seen by a doctor. Another volunteer reported that many migrants are hesitant to go to emergency rooms as they do not classify their ailments as “emergencies.”

A volunteer at a Northwest side police station recalled one case that deeply troubled her. A young mother with breast cancer was desperate to restart her treatment as her medication was taken away at the border, an experience shared by several other migrants. The city did nothing to provide her with care while she was staying at a station. It was up to volunteers to find an appointment for this woman until she was transferred to a shelter where she could receive consistent medical care. Now, most families are moved to shelters within one week of arriving, but at one point, families were staying in stations for months at a time. Several single men are still awaiting shelter placement and have been at police stations for several months with little to no medical attention.

Read more | Migrant health in Chicago suffers due to lack of planning and support

At another Northwest side station, migrants were visited by medical volunteers and signed up for appointments at an FQHC. However, the volunteers were not equipped to provide transit to the FQHCs for follow-up visits. One family explained they were reliant upon random volunteers showing up at the station to fulfill their medical needs. Their children were prescribed antibiotics for sore throats, but it took several days for the family to find volunteers who could fill the prescriptions for them. The father was able to get an appointment at a clinic for dental care; however, the visit cost $30. As he is not able to legally work in the US, he and his family do not have money. Luckily, he was able to find a volunteer to take him to the dental visit.

At the visit, the dentist gave him a prescription and a referral for an oral surgeon. The doctor explained to the volunteer that getting an appointment and free care would be very difficult. The volunteer was able to help the father fill his prescriptions; however, getting an appointment for his necessary tooth extraction remains a challenge.

In addition to individual volunteers, the city has relied on mobile clinics to provide care, such as the Mobile Migrant Health Team (MMHT). These team began their first formal runs in early May 2023 and focused on migrants staying at police stations and other respite centers that were not receiving formal care. Largely composed of volunteer medical students overseen by a physician, the group has served hundreds of families. MMHT not only provides acute care but also offers referrals and transit to and from clinic visits. An MMHT volunteer explained that not all FQHCs will provide free care unless much complicated paperwork is completed, which is often not an option for migrants. MMHT has developed relationships with specific clinics that do not require such paperwork.

Despite the city’s reliance on this mobile clinic, GoFundMe and private donations have covered most costs. “This is an exploitative relationship,” stated a volunteer. These volunteer efforts operate on tight budgets, making the provision of health care more difficult.

Institutional healthcare would be beneficial

In addition to having more resources, “putting people through formal systems would be safer,” stated family physician Dr. Amy Blair. She explained public health institutions are required for reporting illnesses and tracking disease spread. MMHT reports and escalates infectious disease cases, such as tuberculosis, to the city and state. However, the efficiency with which other cases are reported and tracked are not fully understood by volunteers at other stations. Volunteers have reported migrants not being screened for communicable diseases prior to or upon arriving in Chicago. One volunteer pointed out the Chicago Department of Public Health’s absence from these respite centers. “There are many gaps in communication. Without a central system we are wasting a lot of resources. We’re just trying to survive instead of working smarter and efficiently,” said a MMHT volunteer.

The city had announced that all people will be moved out of police stations by December 1 and relocated to a large “base camp” before placement in shelters. Volunteers remain skeptical of this plan, and it is unknown how healthcare will be provided.

However, it is known that noninstitutional medicine will continue in the United States. Healthcare in the US is difficult to navigate and near impossible to access without health insurance. Many new arrivals struggle to grasp the complexity of the US healthcare system, and volunteers find it challenging to navigate the institutional medical system, especially for people without health insurance. A large part of the tactics used to provide migrants care have come out of the tradition of street medicine, which provides acute medical attention to unhoused people.

This crisis has only amplified the ways in which the US healthcare system fails to serve all residents. As long as healthcare is operated like a business, noninstitutional medical care will always be needed.

People’s Health Dispatch is a fortnightly bulletin published by the People’s Health Movement and Peoples Dispatch. For more articles and to subscribe to People’s Health Dispatch, click here