Alarm over shelter conditions as 5-year-old migrant dies in Chicago

The death of a 5-year-old boy has renewed concerns over how Chicago is handling the arrival of thousands of migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border.
Posted at 5:27 PM, Dec 21, 2023

In front of a migrant shelter in a former warehouse in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, hundreds gathered on Wednesday evening to honor the life of 5-year-old Jean Carlos Martinez Rivero and to show support to his family.

It's inside that shelter, one of the city's largest, that the young migrant fell ill on Sunday and was pronounced dead soon after at a nearby hospital.

"This was a preventable death. This was also a predictable death," said social worker and community organizer Britt Hodgdon after the vigil.

For migrant advocates, Rivero's death — and the recent hospitalization of six more migrants from the same building — illustrates the dangerous conditions inside the city's 27 shelters, which are overflowing with demand.

"Unfortunately, we treat animals in this country better than we do humans," said Erika Villegas, a volunteer who has been helping migrants in Chicago for months.

Though volunteers and journalists are not permitted inside shelters, Villegas is in direct contact with some of the nearly 2,500 migrants sleeping inside the former warehouse in Pilsen.

Chicago migrant crisis: Scenes of desperation inside police stations
Immigrants from Venezuela are reflected in a marble wall while taking shelter at a Chicago Police station.

Chicago migrant crisis: Scenes of desperation inside police stations

A new surge of migrant arrivals in Chicago is quickly outpacing the city's shelter capacity.


"They're all sleeping in open spaces, which creates an environment where if one person is sick, then most people can be contagious and get other people sick," Villegas said. "There is only one doctor that comes to visit several hours a week to take care of over 2000 people."

Next to the vigil, Villegas helped set up donation tables with coats, diapers and painkillers for migrants not used to Chicago's freezing temperatures.

The city of Chicago is investigating the cause of the child's death, claiming "there is no evidence of an outbreak at the shelter."

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson blames Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for sending "sick migrants" to his city, a charge that the Texas governor denies.

More than 26,000 migrants have come to Chicago over the past 16 months, most of them bused from Texas. And this week the Texas governor flew another 120 migrants in from El Paso.

As migrants continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in record numbers, many are likely on their way to cities like New York, Denver and D.C., which already have reached their breaking point — a fact that was tragically on display at the vigil in Chicago where migrants and local Chicagoans came together to demand solutions and pray that such another tragedy won't happen again.