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On the Ground

They Came Here for a New Life. Now They’re Trapped in O’Hare

Angi and her family left Venezuela for a better life in the States. But after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott put them on a plane to Chicago, they and so many others were stuck in limbo at the airport

I t’s just past 11 a.m. on Christmas Eve, and Angimar leans forward in a blue, perforated metal chair to examine her toddler’s diaper. The boy has been tugging at his legging pants, and his walk is now more of a waddle. Along with most personal-hygiene products, diapers are in short supply. Within a few seconds, 28-year-old Angimar, who goes by Angi, makes a quick calculation, the kind that mothers of young children make hundreds of times each day. It’s time, she decides, for a new one. 

Angi asks Yenni, the eldest of five children whose ages range from two to nine, to retrieve a plastic cup that she’s stashed with their belongings. As Yenni jogs across the room, she passes a stretch of full-height windows that showcase oversize, twinkling wreaths and bright red bows that offer a dose of seasonal cheer. Butted up against them sit a collection of inflatable mattresses strewn with blankets, backpacks, and clothing. Together, the beds form an organic shape, one that has grown around the room’s more permanent fixtures — a Pepsi vending machine, a Bank of America ATM, rows of chairs bolted to the floor. A small group hovers around a tangle of phone cords that protrude from a charging station. One man smiles at a pixelated video. He waves and says “Feliz Navidad” to the girl on the screen. 

When Yenni returns with the cup, Angi takes it and pulls her son toward the public restroom. Before she disappears into the multi-stall bathroom, Angi passes a uniformed man who leans against a janitorial cart. With an arm wrapped around the mop handle, he nods to Angi. He’s already cleaned the bathroom once this morning, and he’ll return several more times throughout the day. This one in particular, in comparison with the others the man cleans during his shift, demands extra care. 

Hovering over the sink, Angi fills the flimsy plastic cup with water and dips paper towels in it to create an approximation of a wet wipe, which are also hard to find. She’ll come back to this same faucet several times throughout the day. It’s also her bath, shower, and laundry basin. Once finished, Angi, who moves at an unhurried pace, emerges to find her boys in the middle of a cutthroat soccer game. Her dark brown eyes, framed by sharp eyebrows, look tired. She brushes a strand of her wavy, dark hair from her neck, a gesture that reveals a “Daniel” tattoo inked in cursive writing. As the trio play, passing around the ball, they never once look at the large sign in the corner of the room. It’s a map of O’Hare International Airport, and on it, a small dot toward the center of the illustration reads “You are here.” 

When she arrived in Chicago in late 2023, Angi, whose last name Rolling Stone is withholding due to her precarious immigration status, joined the recent wave of migrants who have landed in the city since August 2022. Most arrived here on buses sent by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott who, in a campaign to push the Biden administration to secure the southern border, bussed tens of thousands of migrants from Texas to large Democratic cities — New York, Los Angeles, and Denver, among others. In a January press release trumpeting the success of what Abbott calls “Operation Lone Star,” the Texas governor celebrated transporting more than 100,000 migrants. Abbott has sent 12,500 to Washington, D.C., another 15,700 migrants to Denver, and 30,800 to Chicago. (Chicago is second only to New York City, where 37,100 migrants have arrived on buses and trains since August 2022.) 

So far, the city of Chicago has spent $138 million on migrant assistance and committed an additional $150 million in 2024. In total, the state of Illinois had spent or committed $638 million by November 2023. But even with hundreds of millions of dollars directed at the crisis, Chicago has struggled to support the steady flood of people. This has proven especially true when it comes to housing. Ever since the first buses carrying migrants arrived in Chicago, the question of where to house people has been a contentious one. 

It took only a few months for Chicago’s shelters to fill up. In response, the city erected additional emergency shelters housed inside hotels, at least one armory space, and a former manufacturing facility. By the end of 2023, Chicago was running 28 shelters, mostly occupied entirely by migrants. But with hundreds of asylum seekers arriving in the city every week, there were still many who did not secure spots. Some pitched tents along the highways while others slept in city buses that had been designated as temporary housing. More than 3,300 migrants slept in police-station lobbies across the city. 

Looking for a more permanent solution, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson announced the construction of what he called winterized “base camps” last September. His administration shared that the first climate-controlled tent would house as many as 2,000 migrants on a 10-acre site. The plans were immediately met with protest. In a series of public meetings, community residents questioned whether the camps were humane, while others said they simply did not want migrants in their neighborhood. Activists and volunteers, too, pushed back against the plans after Johnson inked a $29 million contract with GardaWorld Federal Services, a controversial security firm that has been criticized for the alleged hazardous conditions inside its immigrant-detention centers in Texas and Canada. After breaking ground in late November, construction was halted after an environmental review showed the site contained high levels of lead, arsenic, and mercury. 

In December, the Johnson administration shifted gears and said it planned to move all migrants into existing city shelters before the year’s end. By Dec. 15, police stations were empty for the first time in eight months. But four days later, on Dec. 19, a chartered private plane carrying migrants landed at O’Hare airport. After more than a year of sending buses to Chicago, Gov. Abbott had taken his plan airborne. Angi and her five children were among the more than 100 migrants caught in the crosswinds. 

Angi had been in El Paso, Texas, for less than 24 hours when someone asked if she wanted to board a flight to Chicago. Fresh from her first shower in weeks — a group of volunteers had taken Angi to a hotel where she was able to clean up — the idea was exciting. After months clawing her way through the Panamanian jungle and Mexican desert to reach the U.S. border, a cushioned seat on a clean airplane sounded nice. Plus, Angi had heard that Chicago was a welcoming place for immigrants. But she had never been on an airplane. She’d never even seen one up close. 

At first, the flight was a thrill for Angi. Every sound seemed to surprise and delight her children. Their eyes widened when a voice came over the speaker, and they bounced in their seats as the engine roared, their anticipation propelling them up and down. Their shrill screams filled the cabin when the plane took flight. As they climbed into the sky, Angi looked out the window as the Texas landscape began to shrink from view. The city of El Paso transformed from a sprawling urban landscape to a repeating geometric pattern wedged between the foot of the Franklin Mountains and the Rio Grande River. 

Angi and her children travel by foot through the jungle. Courtesy of the family

Partway through the flight, the plane hit turbulence and Angi felt her stomach drop. “I’d never had that feeling in my gut,” she recalls. “I kept thinking, ‘Are we going to die?’ ” 

By the time Angi arrived at O’Hare, the airport’s bus-shuttle center was already operating as what the city calls a “landing zone,” or a temporary station where new arrivals wait for placement in a city shelter. The long corridor, which sits between an hourly parking lot and a Hilton Hotel, was first converted into an emergency shelter last June, when migrants began arriving on commercial flights, most of them paid for by Catholic Charities in Texas. The refuge, which stands close to Terminal 1, was meant to only hold people for short periods of time, but as the swell of migrants continued to outpace available shelter spots, the airport, by default, became a longer-term solution for some. As the new year approached, close to 300 migrants remained at the airport. (At one point earlier in the year, O’Hare housed more than 800 migrants.) 

“What we have is an international and federal crisis that local governments are being asked to subsidize,” says Johnson in a written statement provided to Rolling Stone. “This is unsustainable because none of our local economies are positioned to be able to carry on such a mission.”

But the city and state, says Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights deputy director Veronica Castro, could also do more. “The federal government definitely has a role to play, but if we had a better infrastructure in place, maybe we would have been better situated to deal with this,” she says. “The city and state are both trying, but there’s still a lot of room to grow and for us to really live up to what it looks like to support people humanely.” 

Landing in an ad hoc environment can also compound the stresses that come with leaving home. “What’s clear about [O’Hare airport] is that it’s an environment that communicates it is temporary,” says Aimee Hilado, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, whose research focuses on migrant and refugee trauma. “It is not a home, it is not a shelter, it’s not a space where one could create routines that are so essential to people’s sense of self. It’s just not the kind of location that is necessary to heal from migration trauma.” 

Inside the terminal, Angi was greeted by staff from Favorite Healthcare Staffing, the Kansas-based company that holds contracts to run the city’s emergency migrant shelters. “They told us our arrival was a surprise,” says Angi, reflecting on her first conversations with Favorite staff. “No one was expecting us.” 

The employee offered Angi sandwiches and a stack of four thin blankets. They told Angi she’d have to spend the night sleeping against the terminal windows. By 11 p.m., the temperature had dipped below 30 degrees and the windows felt cold to the touch. Angi laid one of the blankets on the tile floor and pulled her children close to her. She tucked them beneath the remaining three, forming a knit cocoon around her family. “I was very stressed,” says Angi, who tried not to resign to the feeling. “I just trusted in God that things would change in the coming days.”

The following day, Angi was told she could relocate to a small plot behind a large black curtain that formed a translucent perimeter around hundreds of makeshift beds. She also heard that families were fast-tracked to shelters and she and her children could likely end up in one soon. Stepping behind the curtained space, Angi saw dozens of families living in similar limbo. “The layout is not humane at all,” says Vianney Marzullo, a volunteer who has spent the past six months helping migrants living at the airport. Marzullo, along with a large network of Chicago residents, regularly delivers clothes, toiletries, and warm meals there. “These are people used to having their freedom, and they are now stuck in a place where they were supposed to be for 48 hours. It’s so far removed from anything else.” 

At O’Hare airport, under the fluorescent lights that illuminate one of the world’s busiest travel hubs, Angi found herself standing still, suspended somewhere between the life she left and the one she’d hoped to find. 

At one point last year, O’Hare housed more than 800 migrants Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

Inside the airport, hours pass slowly. Every morning, Angi and her children wake up around 7 a.m. to the sounds of other children embracing — or rejecting — the morning. Staff lay out a buffet of fruit, milk cartons, cereal, and simple sandwiches. Angi usually takes the breakfast back to her bed, where she balances the paper bowls and plastic utensils on her lap. She tries to encourage her kids to eat fruit, but she’ll settle for any calories. They are partial to Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. After breakfast, Angi spends most of the day in a chair toggling between videos and messages on her phone and admonishing her children when they fight. With five kids, squabbles are common: One wants to watch a Coldplay video, and another the recent highlights from a soccer match. Someone wants to draw, and another hogs the crayons. The spats happen dozens of times a day and fizzle as quickly as they spark. 

Though Angi left home with a couple of sets of clothes, when she arrived at the airport, she only had one. Her daily uniform includes a pair of blue jeans, a thin maroon sweatshirt with illustrated pink hearts, and a pair of sneakers she wears like slides since they’re several sizes too small. Most days, Angi uses the bathroom sinks to wipe herself clean. A bus comes twice a week to shuttle people to public showers at a nearby YMCA. If Angi wants to wash and dry her clothes, she does so in the bathroom sinks and under the electric hand dryers. 

When weather permitted, Angi joined a few other migrant mothers and took the elevator one floor down to the airport Chicago Public Transit train stop. From the airport, each ride on the train costs $5, a hefty sum for the mother and her five children, all of whom she brought along. They rode for more than an hour on the train and a bus to the closest Walmart, a place where she’d heard she might collect a few dollars. Standing in the store’s parking lot for more than three hours, Angi held up a sign she’d made on a Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes box. The message, which she mistranslated on her phone, read “Merry Christmas. Could you help me with some foo or wok? Thank you.”

On this December morning, Angi’s children keep themselves entertained on the airport floor. Yenni, her belly flat against the ground and her legs propped up behind her, takes a marker to a stack of construction paper. She sketches a collection of faces: Happy. Laughing. Sad. As she draws, a pair of police officers idly pace the room. They nod at familiar faces and chuckle at their quiet, private jokes. Angi watches Yenni draw. She admires her daughter’s artwork. 

“The other day she said to me, ‘Mom, all the effort we put into coming here, and for what? We’re stuck here,’ ” Angi says. “I told her we were going to take it day by day. It’s a slow process.” The truth is Angi gave up long-term planning many years ago. The notion of a permanent home has been fractured and scattered in the years since she left Venezuela. For Angi, the airport is just another point in a long list of impermanent places. 

Sliding back into her chair, Angi watches as a group of holiday travelers — headphones wrapped around their necks, skis tucked snugly inside tailored bags — weave their way through the room. Even their baby’s car seat comes with its own bag. The group soon settles in an otherwise empty row of chairs. The baby gurgles from a stroller while the older children remain fixated on their tablets. The man, likely the children’s father, surveys the room. His face remains stony as his eyes dart from one corner to the other. He holds a water bottle to his mouth and silently directs his family toward the automatic doors. The group rise to their feet and obediently make their way toward the exit. 

Angi watches the family as they cut through the crowd. “Sometimes I look at them and think about how they are able to travel and carry bags,” Angi says. “I hope someday that will be me.” 

Just then, as if attuned to Angi’s quiet laments, a man and his daughter approach her. 

“She’d like to give her something,” the man says, gesturing first to his daughter and then to Yenni. The two girls look about the same age. Angi nods and smiles. She doesn’t understand his words, but the sentiment remains clear. The American girl silently hands Yenni a stuffed Minnie Mouse doll before scurrying away. The doll shows patches of wear; it is not a new Minnie Mouse, but one that has been loved and treasured. A wide smile begins to stretch across Yenni’s face, but before it reaches full tilt, the girl returns. This time she offers Yenni a turquoise dinosaur and a fleece blanket, two items from her suitcase.

“Thank you,” Yenni whispers shyly.

“Merry Christmas,” says the man. He discreetly hands Angi a few dollars from his wallet and soon disappears through a set of nearby doors. 

Yenni admires her new toys. She spends the next several minutes moving the dolls up and over the chairs and floor, familiarizing the creatures with the contours of their new home.

Angi can identify the exact moment she decided to leave Venezuela. She grew up in the capital city of Caracas, where she lived with her mother and three siblings. Angi says her eldest brother, the only one with consistent work, helped support the rest of the family. Angi herself went to school until she got pregnant with her first child, at 17. In the years following the country’s economic collapse in 2014, Venezuela was not an easy place to raise children. Soaring food prices, along with national food shortages, meant Angi and her children became used to living with hunger pangs. She’d often only be able to buy cheaper, less-healthy ingredients rather than fresh ones. Home didn’t offer much relief, either. Angi shared a small house with a dirt floor with her ex-partner.

Despite the country’s collapse, Angi managed to stay afloat for several years. That changed in 2016 when her son, who was just a little over a year old at the time, fell ill. Unsure what to do, Angi brought him to a hospital. Angi believes they didn’t do enough to save him. “I lost my son because of the health system,” Angi says. “They just let you die there.” 

After that, Angi’s world shifted. She knew she couldn’t stay in Caracas long-term. So Angi packed her belongings and made her way to neighboring Colombia, joining the almost 8 million Venezuelans who have left the country in recent years. In Colombia, she worked various odd jobs including selling a hodgepodge of wholesale hygiene and cleaning products. After saving a bit of money, Angi returned to Caracas and fetched her four younger children who had been living with her mother. (Her eldest son, then eight, chose to remain in Venezuela with his grandmother.) But even working multiple jobs, Angi remained on the edge of poverty. “Even though we were working, it wasn’t enough to live a decent life,” Angi says. “My kids weren’t even healthy. We couldn’t afford healthy foods.” 

So when her sister announced her plan to make the more than 2,000-mile journey to the United States last fall, Angi decided to try her luck, too. Her motivation was simple: “I wanted a better future for my kids.”

To prepare for the journey, Angi packed a backpack with a small gas stove, cans of tuna fish, black beans, and boxes of instant noodles. She carried large jugs of water and put her youngest son in a baby carrier. With just a few hundred dollars, the group traveled by bus and foot until they reached the Darién Gap, the treacherous stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama. She and her boyfriend, who she’d met in Colombia, used almost all of their money to pay a smuggler to show them a safe route through the jungle. But guiding Angi and her five children proved costly, so the couple could only afford minimal help. That meant that when they reached particularly difficult passages, they were left to fend for themselves. 

“The hardest part was the rivers,” recalls Angi, who says she lost count of how many she crossed. “They were really fast, and the water was up to my neck. I don’t know how to swim.” Angi kept her children tied to her body with cables. At one point, her toddler almost drifted away with the current. “I had to grab him by the leg.” 

After long days walking from early in the morning until evening, Angi would cry herself to sleep on the jungle floor. “I thought about giving up,” she says. 

Angi ran out of money in Guatemala, so she sold candy at stoplights to make some more. When she collected enough, she took her family to a hotel where they showered for the first time since leaving Colombia weeks earlier. From there, they continued on to Mexico and hopped onto several freight trains, a system commonly referred to as “La Bestia,” or “the beast.” (Another, grimmer nickname is “the train of death.”) Like so many people desperate to reach America at almost any cost, Angi clawed her way up the side of a cargo car and pulled herself onto the roof. Once all five children had been carried to the top, Angi planted them toward the center of the car and instructed them not to move. The group rode on top of trains for days, rationing what little food and water they had. Sometimes a train would stop for hours on end in the middle of the desert. “My biggest fear was that my kids would fall off,” Angi says. “I didn’t sleep the whole time because I was afraid they would roll over.” 

Angi and her family on top of the freight train system known as “La Bestia.”

When Angi reached O’Hare airport, she was exhausted. When she left Colombia three months earlier, she did so without a clear picture of the life she might build in the United States. What she never considered, however, was that she might live in a simulacrum of modern life where shrunken versions of beloved Chicago restaurants hawk second-rate hot dogs and posters for luxury brands like Coach advertise “the epitome of classic American style.”

“Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision,” Angi says, the thought sheathed in melancholy. “I hope I did.” 

On Christmas day, Angi sits in the same blue metal chair, this time detangling Yenni’s thick, wet hair. She spent the morning washing it in the bathroom sink. Angi, who uses a tiny lilac doll’s comb, divides Yenni’s hair into sections and brushes each one methodically. Throughout the room, there’s a notable lift in the air, especially among the children. Angi’s boys chase two new remote-control cars around the floor, gifts given to them that morning by a group of volunteers. 

Angi is in good spirits, too. Earlier, a man came to the airport asking if anyone was looking for work, and her boyfriend raised his hand. He’s since worked a few shifts as a line cook at a Mexican restaurant about an hour and a half away. Angi herself collected a few dollars outside of Walmart, where she spent much of the previous afternoon holding her sign up to people squeezing in last-minute holiday shopping. 

Around noon, a muffled voice on an overhead speaker announces that a buffet of food will be served on the sidewalk. Angi quickly gathers her children and joins the line that somehow already snakes around the building. As she makes her way toward the back, José Feliciano’s megahit “Feliz Navidad” echoes from a small speaker. The song offers a buoyant soundtrack as a group of volunteers dish out greens, beans and rice, corn, Sam’s Club chicken, and cupcakes. They heard about the migrants sleeping at the airport and decided to pool their resources to cook a holiday meal. When a large man in a Santa costume walks the length of the line searching for children to entertain, Angi’s children squeal with delight. Angi encourages them to give Santa a hug and pose for a picture, an image she sends to her mother in Venezuela. 

“Where are the reindeer?” Yenni asks her mom, which makes Angi laugh. Earlier that day, Yenni worried that Santa wouldn’t know where to find them. 

A few minutes pass and Angi checks her phone. Her mom hasn’t responded, but that’s not unusual. They can go days without speaking since her mom has no Wi-Fi at home. The distance weighs on Angi. “I hope I’ll see my mother again in Venezuela,” she says, looking at a picture of her mom and eldest son smiling on a beach. “Or better yet, bring her here.” 

After filling five Styrofoam containers with food, Angi and her children head back inside. In Venezuela, they would spend the day eating pan de jamón, a traditional rolled Christmas bread stuffed with cheese, olives, and ham, paired with rice and garlic sauce. Angi also aches for arepas, the Venezuelan cornmeal cakes that she grew up eating. 

Before she can stop him, Angi’s toddler stuffs an entire cupcake in his mouth. He does it so quickly she might not have noticed if not for the ring of aqua-blue frosting around his mouth. 

“It’s one of the best Christmases they’ve ever had,” says Angi, encouraging her son to eat the beans and rice. She watches her children, savoring the sight of their every bite.

Around the room, small groups huddle together, their Christmas meals perched on their laps. For most, the Christmas celebration is their first so far away from home. For some, the holiday also marks their second month living in the airport. 

Several have been stationed at O’Hare for so long that they’ve found nearby jobs in restaurant kitchens. Now, like many Chicagoans, they take the train to work each day. But today, they’re home. Or the closest thing they have to one. 

After leaving O’Hare, Angi, her boyfriend, and her kids moved into a motel room. Camila Guarda

The Christmas feast would be Angi’s last meal at the airport. Later that day, the same man who gave her boyfriend a job offered to help them book a double-bed room at a Motel 6 around 15 miles away. The motel, he told them, would cut her boyfriend’s commute time to just five minutes. It seemed like a good idea, but now, on the last day of the year, Angi fears it was a mistake. 

Inside the motel room, child-size fingerprints dot the foggy windows. Angi, legs curled beneath her on one of the two double beds, clicks on the TV and settles on a dubbed version of 2013’s American Hustle. Jennifer Lawrence’s dazzling updo fills the screen. 

“I shouldn’t have left the airport,” says Angi as she wipes tears from her eyes. She and her boyfriend have been fighting. “I’m so alone.” 

Angi calls over her middle son. He fell while playing on the stairs and cut his eyebrow, and Angi, who had no Band-Aids, fashioned one from stickers she found in a coloring book. The cut has started to heal, but she worries it will get infected. There’s a Walgreens up the road, but a box of Band-Aids costs $4, money she doesn’t yet have. 

Angi’s choice to seek asylum in the U.S. placed her in a system already burdened with 2 million pending cases. Just in the last year, more than 800,000 people have filed for asylum, marking a 63 percent rise from the year before. Under President Biden’s administration, arrests by the Border Patrol for illegal crossings at the southern border have reached their highest level since the 1960s. In Chicago, Mayor Johnson has joined the mayors of New York and Denver in calling for more federal support. “We have said repeatedly that we need Congress to provide the resources needed to carry out this mission,” says Johnson in his statement. One way to do that, he has said, is to declare the crisis a federal emergency. 

While the Biden administration has not taken such steps, last September, the president did grant some 400,000 Venezuelans who arrived in the country before August 2023 temporary protected status and fast-tracked work visas. Angi, however, does not qualify for either. Even if she could work legally, Angi would need someone to watch her children while she worked. While all but the toddler could attend public school, the closest public elementary schools to the Motel 6 are a 45-minute walk away. 

New Year’s Eve also marks Angi’s 29th birthday, and the first she’ll celebrate so far from home. In the following weeks, the temperatures will drop and warnings of the season’s first real winter storm will fill the news. Angi’s daily trips to chain-store parking lots will dwindle and her children will grow antsy. She’ll fill the miniature fridge with bananas, peanut butter, and boxes of microwave noodles. She’ll send pictures of snow-covered streets to her mother and report on her children’s well-being. Yenni will ask her again why she decided to come to America. And again, Angi will encourage patience and tell her daughter they’re taking things one day at a time. 

Back at O’Hare, a few days into the new year, a young, pregnant woman sits in the same metal chairs where Angi once watched her children play. The woman will soon have a baby, but she doesn’t know when. Or where. A few feet away, a group of high school students huddle together in a vestibule while waiting for their bus. Their backpacks are decorated with keychains and trinkets, and their phones ring with viral sound bites. The last holiday lights still sparkle against the dreary landscape. Overhead, the sounds of intricately choreographed jets rumble from the air. 

Between last June and January, more than 915 flights carrying 4,560 migrants landed in Chicago. And the planes keep coming. Soon, another jet will carry a group of migrants, hundreds of people who, like Angi, may find themselves stuck in an uncertain limbo among millions of travelers who know precisely where they’ll land. 

Translations done by Camila Guarda.

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