McHenry County towns’ reaction to migrant crisis: ‘We’ll urge them to get to Chicago’

Woodstock, McHenry may pass ordinances that fine unscheduled bus drop-offs

After 38 asylum seekers were left without notice Saturday at Fox River Grove’s Metra station, other nearby towns have started taking preliminary action aimed at addressing similar unplanned disembarkments.

Municipalities in McHenry County that have Metra train stops include Fox River Grove, Cary, Crystal Lake, Woodstock, McHenry and Harvard.

The McHenry City Council is holding a special meeting on Friday to consider passing an ordinance that could impound and fine chartered transportation that leaves riders without notice.

The proposed ordinance would apply to commercial motor vehicle operators who are not operating on a predictable and regular basis with a published schedule and who allow 10 or more passengers to disembark. Those operators would be required to coordinate any drop-off with the city five calendar days before arrival, including completing an application for that drop-off.

Violations of the ordinance would lead to impoundment of the vehicle, requiring a $10,000 bond plus fees for the vehicle owner to get it back.

The city of Woodstock may be passing a similar ordinance soon, Mayor Mike Turner said. The board is looking to hold a special meeting on Jan. 2 to contemplate the possible ordinance to deter unscheduled buses, he said. The agenda is expected to be released by Friday evening.

“If anyone was dropped off here we would urge them to get to Chicago by bus or train,” Turner said. “I believe that’s the right course of action.”

“We as a city are not set up to manage something like that,” he said. “Chicago has the expertise, staff and financial resources.”

Crystal Lake also plans on creating a bus fining policy and will consider it at a city board meeting on Jan. 16, Mayor Haig Haleblian said.

“We want to protect the asylum seekers as well as protect the citizens and businesses of Crystal Lake,” he said.

Cary and Fox River Grove are not taking immediate action for any ordinances for now, mostly because both villages do not have home rule status. The city of Harvard could not be reached for comment.

“It certainly would be an obstacle to pass something like that,” Fox River Grove Village Administrator Derek Soderholm said.

Non-home rule municipalities must follow the Illinois municipal code, which limits setting fines to a maximum of $750.

If more people seeking asylum are unexpectedly left again, the village’s goal would be to transition people as smoothly as possible to Chicago, Soderholm said.

Cary assistant village administrator Courtney Sage echoed a similar statement and also mentioned that not being a home-rule village makes it impossible to pass such an ordinance.

McHenry County plans to assist municipalities in getting any surprise asylum seekers to Chicago, McHenry County Administrator Peter Austin said.

“We feel like it is our obligation to keep people warm, comfortable, dry and facilitate their transit to Chicago,” Austin said.

The county has connected with local nonprofit groups such as the Salvation Army in case emergency food and winter clothing is needed for migrants, he said. There are not plans, however, on creating long-term housing for migrants, he said.

“You need big, big sites to handle these kinds of numbers and I don’t feel like there’s that kind of capacity anywhere in McHenry County,” Austin said.

Friday, the county released an updated statement, saying it was “stating its position and how it will respond should additional asylum seekers arrive within its boundaries.”

McHenry County “does not have the authority to direct a municipality to assume any role in housing asylum seekers,” the statement read, “but it may facilitate the efficient transportation of asylum seekers to the consolidated resources of the State of Illinois in the City of Chicago.”

The written statement continued: “While there is no advance notice as to when and where asylum seekers may arrive, McHenry County representatives and Emergency Management have been in regular communication with municipal mayors, managers, and law enforcement to discuss the coordination of responses. McHenry County prioritizes the safety and well-being of all who visit and reside here, and it will continue to closely monitor this evolving situation.”

The migrant crisis has sparked lively debates on local Facebook groups. Many strong opinions are voicing concerns on how to help asylum seekers while others argue that their towns should focus on their residents only.

Metra police coordinated with affected municipalities and Chicago to help migrants get on trains to downtown, Metra media relations specialist Martha Hill said on Wednesday.

“About 40 buses transporting migrants have arrived at various outlying Metra stations over the last several days. Metra received no advanced notification of their arrival,” Hill said.

Once downtown, the people seeking asylum were sent to Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications. Some people were picked up by family or friends, Hill said.

Chicago’s shelter system has reached capacity with more than 15,000 asylum seekers currently in the city, a Chicago mayor’s office news release said.

“In recent days, multiple rogue buses arrived over the Christmas holiday weekend carrying as many as 500 asylum seekers per day and dropping them in random locations across the Chicagoland area in violation of safety protocols established by the city,” the mayor’s office said.

“Now is the time to build a system of care beyond Chicago as shelter capacity has reached its maximum within city limits,” according to the release.

Crystal Lake has not heard from Chicago about it and Haleblian said he believes state and federal governments should step up.

“This is really in the infant stages,” Haleblian said. “If there are ways that we can assist and if it makes sense, I think we’re the type of community that would certainly help if need be, within reason, of course.”

The state or county cannot make local governments house asylum seekers, Austin said.

“This is uncharted waters in that respect but I feel like the county is doing the best it can in preparing for the unknown,” Austin said.

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