DeKalb city leaders back plan to apply for state money to support volunteer efforts to aid migrants

DeKalb City Council directs staff on next steps for potential migrant arrivals, with help of DeKalb Mutual Aid group

Fourth Ward Ald. Greg Perkins speaks at the Feb. 12, 2024 meeting of the DeKalb City Council.

DeKALB – DeKalb city leaders expressed support this week for exploring state grant opportunities that could help fund volunteer efforts to aid migrants seeking asylum should they arrive in town.

City Council consensus was reached providing some direction to city staff on how to proceed with supporting migrants should they arrive in town.

A divided DeKalb City Council previously adopted an ordinance Jan. 8 to regulate unscheduled bus stops in town. The ordinance gives the city authority to fine bus companies or drivers $1,000 per passenger if they don’t adhere give advanced notice of planned arrivals. The ordinance did not, however, address what the city may do to help persons who find themselves stranded after departing a bus and are unwilling to proceed to Chicago or another northern Illinois location.

City Manager Bill Nicklas pointed blame at the federal government for failing to support migrants.

“It’s failing to come up with answers to help people … desperately in need,” Nicklas said.

Instead, city staff said this week soliciting state funding could help bolster local efforts in the events migrants find themselves in DeKalb and in need of food, shelter, translators, medical care, job training or other aid.

On Jan. 17, dozens of community members gathered at a public meeting to establish an organization and to plan next steps. In the meeting, DeKalb Mutual Aid was born under the leadership of chairpersons Frankie DiCaccio and Dave Becker.

DiCaccio said members of the ad-hoc group DeKalb Mutual Aid have spent the past few weeks researching, hearing from peer organizations and municipalities, and strategizing.

“With this ground swell of community support behind us, we’ve been honing our plan,” DiCiaccio said.

City leaders have been engaged in private and community efforts to organize local not-for-profits, church congregations and interested individuals and groups to complement the city’s emergency response.

Dan Kenney, the founder of DeKalb County Community Gardens, urged the City Council to support this grant application.

“We have made a commitment to this work in terms of providing food for the migrants or asylum seekers as they come to our community and try to meet that need,” Kenney said. “As you know, other social service agencies are going to be responding to that need, if it should arise. The grant the city’s eligible for would be of great assistance to all of us. Just like the city, we all have budgets and we don’t have this in our budgets. Any extra expenses that we will incur, which will be considerable, if such a situation should arise, then whatever funding we could get from grants would be extremely important.”

Fourth Ward Alderman Greg Perkins questioned if it’s premature for the city to look into applying for assistance from the second round of the state’s Supporting Municipalities for Asylum Seeker Services grant program.

The second round of the SMASS funding program includes an $11 million commitment by Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration, according to council documents. The deadline for applications was Jan. 31.

“I think it’s just real early in the process,” Perkins said. “We’ve got existing resources that I’m sure are tapped. I’m apprehensive to send them to apply for a grant that we may not have a reasonable chance of getting because we’re not putting good data for the grant application.”

Nicklas disagreed.

“I think rather than waiting to find a population to claim, I think, we may want to explore this,” Nicklas said.

Sixth Ward Alderman Mike Verbic said he wants to see the city put aside some aid for migrants in a responsible manner.

“How can we carve out something looking into the future to be able to have it readily available and not put our other operations at risk and not worry as much how long that reimbursement will take?” Verbic said.

Mayor Cohen Barnes shared that sentiment.

“If we had a fund, carve it out ‘X’ amount of dollars towards this initiative when it comes to asylum seekers, I think, that’s a great step that we could take,” Barnes said. “When the need happens, we’ve got funds to make sure their housed and we’ve food. Then, we’ve applied for reimbursement of those.”

To date, it remains unclear how many migrants would be living in DeKalb County communities. Officials have said they aren’t aware of any large groups of migrants arriving on buses or unexpectedly.

Kenney said he would speculate that DeKalb has already had migrants arrive in town.

“Since we’re not on a train route, we may not see a busload of migrants or asylum seekers dropped off in our cities,” Kenney said. “However, we are seeing individuals coming to our city from south of the border. They are staying in one or two families in a house, or three or four families in a house, and so on. The social service agencies are already seeing an increase in need. DeKalb County Community Gardens is seeing an increase in need for food for many reasons, but that is one of the reasons.”

Nicklas said it will be up to the City Council to decide whether to issue financing to support migrants aside from any potential aid from the state.

The council is expected to continue discussion on this topic during a Feb. 26 meeting.

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