Chicago officials say it’s the first time the Texas Department of Emergency Management has sent a private charter plane carrying asylum seekers to O’Hare Airport.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office confirmed the state was responsible for the flight that took off from El Paso and said more than 120 passengers were on board. An Abbott spokesman said the state was “expanding our operation” to include flying migrants to Chicago, in addition to the hundreds of buses they have already used to transport migrants to the city since last year.
“As Mayor Johnson fails to comply with his city’s ‘welcoming city’ ordinance by targeting busloads of migrants from Texas, we are expanding our operation to include flights to Chicago,” said Abbott press secretary Andrew Mahaleris in a statement.
Chicago police received a call around 7:15 p.m. Tuesday about the flight’s arrival, and two people who were on the plane fled in an Uber before police arrived, according to a statement from the city. The Office of Emergency Management and the Chicago Police Department referred questions to City Hall.
Abbott’s office declined to say how the flight was paid for and whether government funds were used, and said the migrants had signed a waiver of consent “available in multiple languages upon boarding”. News of the plane’s arrival was first reported by WTTW.
The move is the latest escalation by Texas in its efforts to transport thousands of asylum seekers from cities along the US-Mexico border to Democratic-led sanctuary cities such as Chicago. Since last August, more than 600 buses have arrived in Chicago from Texas cities including Brownsville, Del Rio, El Paso, Laredo and McAllen.
More than 26,000 people have arrived by bus from Texas, and another 4,252 people have arrived by plane since June, according to city data.
The city has begun cracking down on buses carrying migrants into the city, while imposing a 60-day limit on migrants staying in shelters and increasing staffing to help them reach their final destinations.
In an effort to regulate where and when buses drop off migrants, the City Council adopted new rules that also give officials the ability to tow and impound buses, in addition to imposing $3,000 fines and storage and towing fees. The first bus impounded under the enhanced rules last week came from Eagle Pass, Texas, and tried to drop off 49 passengers at the city’s designated drop-off zone for unlicensed newcomers.
But the rules have also led to a communication breakdown by Texas authorities, the Johnson administration said, with bus companies trying to drop people off in nearby suburbs to circumvent the heightened regulations.
The city had filed 26 complaints against bus companies as of Tuesday, a Chicago Law Department spokesman said. Five more busloads of migrants are expected to arrive on Wednesday.
The city is struggling to provide shelter for more than 26,100 migrants who have arrived since last August. After a brief release from police stations to accommodate migrants over the weekend, more returned on Monday morning. As of Wednesday, 14,094 migrants were housed in 27 city shelters, with another 18 at police stations and 296 at O’Hare Airport waiting for a place.
The death of a 5-year-old boy living in a migrant shelter in Pilsen and the hospitalization of several residents of the same facility have brought new scrutiny to the shelter’s conditions and the medical care provided. Earlier this week, Johnson accused Abbott of putting “families on buses with no shoes on, cold, wet, tired, hungry, scared, traumatised”, leading to “a display of sick migrants”.
Abbott’s office has indicated that it won’t end its practice of sending migrants to Chicago anytime soon.
Tessa Weinberg covers city government and politics for WBEZ.