Chicago Migrants

‘So many people in tents': New documentary follows migrant families' struggles, triumphs in Chicago

"Desde Cero: The Migrant Journey in Chicago," an hour-long documentary from NBC Chicago and Telemundo Chicago, explores the human side of the city's crisis.

NBC Universal, Inc.

Chicago has welcomed tens of thousands of asylum seekers since August 2022 and spent nearly $300 million to house, feed and care for the new arrivals, a majority from Venezuela. But what is the journey like for these new Chicago residents, from the moment they arrive in the city?

"Desde Cero: The Migrant Journey in Chicago," an hour-long documentary from NBC Chicago and Telemundo Chicago, explores the human side of this crisis. Watch the documentary in the player above.

For nearly six months, NBC Chicago reporter Sandra Torres, Telemundo Chicago reporter Ivon Espitia and Senior Digital Producer DS Shin followed the lives of two families and several individuals who left Venezuela to seek asylum in the United States to provide a better life for their families. 

"When I got to the 25th Police District here in Chicago ... I said, 'Oh my God.' I went into panic mode when I saw so many people in tents, little children sleeping outside in the cold," said Maria, who migrated to Chicago with her husband and two young sons in April 2023. NBC Chicago and Telemundo Chicago are not using the families' full names to protect their identities.

Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, in office at that time, declared a State of Emergency before handing over the reins to current Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, saying the city was at a breaking point.

Lightfoot opened up for the first time in the documentary about how she handled the crisis, a year later.

"It's like when you book a hotel and they say, "No, I'm sorry, we don't have any occupancy." That was where we were at that point," Lightfoot told Torres.

The film also introduces you to a Venezuelan family of eight who obtained free tickets from a non-profit to fly to Chicago from Texas and had to sleep at an airport terminal and a Chicago Police Station for several days before moving on to four different temporary shelters.

"To sleep on the floor was somewhat uncomfortable," said Giovanny, who has six children with his wife Iris. "But nonetheless, we felt a bit protected, compared to what we experienced when we were crossing the jungle."

Traversing numerous countries, these families risked their lives to make it to North America. The documentary details their months-long walking journey to seek asylum in the United States, from the moment they leave South America to when they cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

"No one is taking this trip for fun or for just improving its economic conditions. People are making this trip because they're surviving," said Bram Ebus, a consultant for the International Crisis Group, who spoke at length in the documentary about the obstacles migrants face, especially when they cross the Darien Gap, considered to be one of the most dangerous migrant routes in the world.

In the Chicago area, many have welcomed the newcomers with open arms, but there has also been intense pushback in different neighborhoods every time the city announces a new temporary shelter to house the migrants. This has resulted in racial tensions that have become a part of the story.

Is this a repeat of history? Chicago Urban Historian Shermann Dilla Thomas broke down how previous generations of migrants have been treated similarly.

Watch "Desde Cero: The Migrant Journey in Chicago" in the player and on the NBC Chicago News streaming channel on Peacock, Roku, Samsung TV, Xumo, Google TV, Pluto or your favorite streaming destination.

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