Migrant buses coming to Will County directed to Metra stations as cities put penalties in place

A Metra train waits to depart at the Joliet Gateway Center train station on Wednesday, Jan. 3rd, 2024 in Joliet.

A streak of Texas bus drop-offs brought an estimated 400 migrants to Will County in December, but almost all of the stops were in University Park, and most if not all of the passengers are believed to have moved on to Chicago.

“They can’t speak English, but they can say Chicago,” Lockport City Administrator Ben Benson said of the migrants who were left by a bus at the Metra station in the city on Dec. 21.

“Chicago” was the one word that bridged the communication gap between Benson and the migrants, and the city of Lockport arranged for township buses to take them to the city.

That incident Dec. 21 was the only migrant drop-off in Lockport, Benson said.

The next day, Lockport issued an executive order setting conditions and penalties for unscheduled bus stops. On Wednesday night, the Lockport City Council approved an ordinance ratifying the executive order.

Other Will County cities have been taking the same measures after the run of 14 drop-offs that occurred between Dec. 14 and 23, but those appear to have stopped – at least for now.

“We haven’t had any recently,” Will County Emergency Management Agency Director Allison Anderson said.

A Pace bus sits at the Joliet Gateway Center on Wednesday, Jan. 3rd, 2024 in Joliet.

The Will County EMA announced Dec. 22 that it was working with municipalities in the county and had developed a plan to deal with migrant buses. The agency is keeping track of confirmed bus drop-offs, which authorities said started locally last month, although many in the public believe they have been occurring for some time.

Anderson said that with one exception, the migrants dropped off in Will County were taken by bus to Metra stations so they could continue to Chicago.

“The majority are finding their way to Chicago,” Anderson said.

So far, the drop-offs have been mostly in University Park, which also has a Metra station and is right off Interstate 57, with the exception of the two in Lockport and Manhattan and one other situation.

Thirteen migrants were found on the side of Route 50 in Peotone, which they had somehow reached after having been dropped off at a gas station in Kankakee, Anderson said. They were taken to the Metra station in University Park.

Communities enact fines, other regulations

The arrival of migrant buses in Will County has spurred municipalities to set new rules for what are called “unscheduled bus stops,” requiring advance notice of buses and passengers and setting stiff penalties for those that don’t register.

Joliet, Channahon and Wilmington on Tuesday approved ordinances regulating unscheduled bus stops. On Wednesday, the Manhattan Village Board also voted on an ordinance, which, like that of Joliet, poses fines of $750 per passenger and provides for buses in violation to be impounded.

The Manhattan ordinance, like that in Lockport, follows an executive order issued the day after a bus from Texas tried to unload migrant passengers at the village Metra station Dec. 21.

“Despite rumors to the contrary, as far as we know, there has only been one attempted drop-off,” Manhattan Village Administrator Nick Palmer said.

There have been rumors of other drop-offs. But the one on Dec. 21 is the only drop-off Manhattan authorities have confirmed.

Manhattan police came to the station as a bus was trying to drop off passengers, Palmer said. It was a cold night, and there were no additional Metra trains running from Manhattan that night.

Police redirected the bus to Joliet, where trains run later in the night, and the migrants were able to take the Metra to the city.

The goal is to get migrants to what is known as Chicago’s bus landing zone, where migrants are connected with social services and sponsors who provide assistance.

The period in which 14 buses dropped off migrants in Will County was a busy one for much of the Chicago region, according to Gov. JB Pritzker’s office.

A sign directs pedestrians to the Joliet Gateway Center train and bus stations on Wednesday, Jan. 3rd, 2024 in Joliet.

More than 60 buses brought almost 2,500 migrants to the Chicago area from Texas between Dec. 20 and 27, according to a news release from the governor Wednesday. Other stops outside Chicago included Aurora and Elgin, according to the release.

The ordinances passed in recent days mandate advance notice if there are buses coming to town. Bus companies planning to drop off migrants in Joliet are required to first apply to the police chief and provide passenger lists along with background checks.

Whether bus companies will go to the trouble of registering before they visit is hard to predict.

One Joliet resident at the City Council meeting this week claimed migrant buses are making regular nighttime drop-offs on Jefferson Street.

But Joliet authorities have no evidence of drop-offs there or anywhere else in the city, Police Chief William Evans said.

The only migrants bused into Joliet came after being redirected from other Will County towns so they could use the late-running Metra trains to get to Chicago, Evans said.

“We’re all working together,” he said.