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Chicago scrambles to shelter migrants in dangerous cold as Texas’ governor refuses to stop drop-offs

Migrants get food Friday outside Chicago's migrant landing zone. (Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNN) — Hoping to halt migrant drop-offs as extreme weather plagues Chicago, Illinois’ Democratic governor warned in a letter Friday to his GOP counterpart in Texas that sending migrants now to the Windy City could cost lives, adding to the already deadly toll of the migrant crisis.

“While action is pending at the federal level, I plead with you for mercy for the thousands of people who are powerless to speak for themselves,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker wrote. “Please, while winter is threatening vulnerable people’s lives, suspend your transports and do not send more people to our state.”

“Your callousness, sending buses and planes full of migrants in this weather, is now life-threatening to every one of the arrivals,” he continued. “Hundreds of children’s and families’ health and survival are at risk due to your actions.”

Instead, however, Gov. Greg Abbott’s administration has doubled down on its mission since 2022 to dispatch migrants north from Texas via bus and plane to cities led by Democrats, including Chicago, New York and Denver, to “provide support to our overrun and overwhelmed border communities,” his spokesperson Andrew Mahaleris told CNN Friday, noting, “Governor Pritzker was all too proud to call Illinois ’the most welcoming state in the nation’ until Governor Abbott began transporting migrants to Chicago.”

Chicago’s wind chill is forecast to plummet by Tuesday morning to 32 below zero – cold so extreme it could cause frostbite on exposed skin in as few as 10 minutes, according to CNN Weather. For those unaccustomed to such bone-chilling cold – including migrants who often arrive with only the clothes on their back – it can be a life-or-death challenge.

Chicago shelters lately have been so full, incoming migrants were kept at a designated “landing zone,” with minimal access to food and sanitation and only parked Chicago Transit Authority buses for temporary heat.

There had been about 140 migrants on those buses, Democratic Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson said Friday, down from a high of more than 300, though as of Sunday, there were no longer any migrants awaiting placement in shelters at the landing zone location, according to the city.

As to whether conditions at the landing zone were acceptable, Johnson said, “Look, that’s a good question, you know. It’s certainly not acceptable for the (Texas) governor to send people to the city of Chicago, but we’re meeting the moment.”

Over the last few weeks, mayors of New York, Chicago and Denver have been irked by “rogue buses” from Texas dropping off migrants by the thousands and tried in their own jurisdictions to slow the surge by enacting mandates and requirements for bus operators to coordinate arrivals under the threat of impound, fines and even jail time.

Leaders of several Chicago suburbs even voted his month to restrict buses from dropping off migrants without notice, while charter buses have dropped off migrants in New Jersey to evade rules aimed at curbing arrivals in New York City.

Meanwhile in New York, homeless migrants starting Tuesday will be subject to a new 11 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew at four respite centers managed by the city’s Emergency Management Department, a spokesperson for City Hall told CNN on Monday.

In November, Chicago implemented a 60-day shelter stay policy based on migrants’ arrival dates so as not overcrowd the shelter system and to provide asylum-seekers services while they set up long-term housing. But due to the harsh weather, city officials suspended that limit and made some exceptions to the policy, Johnson said Friday.

‘Do his job and secure the border’

As for Abbott’s position, “instead of complaining about migrants sent from Texas, where we are also preparing to experience severe winter weather across the state, Governor Pritzker should call on his party leader to finally do his job and secure the border – something he continues refusing to do,” his spokesperson Mahaleris told CNN in the Friday statement.

“Until President Biden steps up and does his job to secure the border, Texas will continue transporting migrants to sanctuary cities to help our local partners respond to this Biden-made crisis,” he added.

Over the weekend, the bodies of three migrants – a woman and two children – were recovered by Mexican authorities after they drowned in the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas, very recently the epicenter of the migrant crisis and an area where state authorities have blocked the US Border Patrol from accessing miles of the US-Mexico divide, officials said.

Tensions have been high between state and federal officials as the White House and lawmakers challenge Abbott’s policies, including the use of razor wire along the border and a new law that makes entering Texas illegally a state crime.

The Biden administration on Friday complained to the US Supreme Court about the state blocking Border Patrol from a city park along the river and asked the high court to quickly intervene. The state on Saturday told the high court it was “working promptly” to ensure Border Patrol has access to a boat ramp at Shelby Park.

The White House called the recent migrant deaths “tragic” and characterized Abbott’s directives on the border as “political stunts,” Angelo Fernández Hernández, White House assistant press secretary said Sunday.

“While we continue to gather facts about the circumstances of these tragic deaths, one thing is clear: Gov. Abbott’s political stunts are cruel, inhumane, and dangerous. US Border Patrol must have access to the border to enforce our laws,” Fernández Hernández told CNN in a statement.

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