Wake for 5-year-old migrant boy draws hundreds of people; advocates demand better

By | December 21, 2023

Hundreds gathered outside a migrant shelter on the Lower West Side on Wednesday evening, three days after a 5-year-old migrant staying there died in a medical emergency that has confused and frustrated migrants, volunteers and health care advocates.

For advocates, the death of Jean Carlos Martinez Rivero is a symbol of the fallout from repeated chaos between governments struggling to house and care for record numbers of migrants crossing the U.S. southern border.

“If there are people sending migrants from the border, coming to us from Texas, and not really respecting human life, someone is going to get hurt,” said John Zayas, senior pastor at Grace and Peace Church in Austin, who was part of an initiative in which faith-based and philanthropic groups opened their doors to hundreds of migrants staying in police stations in November.

Ahead of the vigil, the scene outside the shelter was busy as organizers set up yellow flowers, roses and candles on the sidewalk in anticipation of the gathering.

“Arepa, arepa, arepa!” migrants shouted from the sidewalk, handing out the traditional Venezuelan corn pancake from Styrofoam coolers. Cars honked as they drove by, and volunteers handed out coats from their suitcases to dozens of migrants staying at the shelter.

Around 4:30 p.m., an ambulance pulled up to the shelter — one of at least a dozen that have arrived at the crowded warehouse since Jean Carlos died Sunday.

According to police, his parents reported that their son had been ill a few days before his death.

Around 3 p.m. Sunday, staff at the shelter at 2241 S. Halsted St. began performing chest compressions on Jean Carlos and called an ambulance after his lips turned purple and his eyes rolled into the back of his head, according to a police report.

The boy was pronounced dead at Comer Children’s Hospital and the cause of death is under investigation, authorities said.

Doctors treating migrants have reported that asylum seekers presented with strep throat, ear infections, stomach flu, skin rashes and chronic conditions that were not treated in their countries of origin.

The Chicago Department of Public Health has seen an increase in chickenpox cases, especially in the past four weeks. Most cases involve people newly arrived from the U.S. southern border and living in shelters.

Britt Hodgdon, a social worker trained as a trauma therapist, spoke out at the vigil.

“This was a preventable death. This was also a predictable death,” she said, pleading with city shelter staff to take steps to improve conditions inside.

The Martinez Rivero family arrived in Chicago on Nov. 30, according to the city. The boy’s parents were devastated, Matt DeMateo, executive director and pastor at New Life Centers, who is comforting the family, told the Tribune on Tuesday.

Tim Noonan, a volunteer who helped migrants staying at the Morgan Park District (22nd) police station, said the ambulance that picked up the child should have been called earlier. He is concerned about the health care provided at city-run shelters.

“It really makes you angry,” he said. “I mean, you wouldn’t treat a dog like that.”

Noonan said the vigil Wednesday night was for all Venezuelan children and the heartache they endured to reach the United States. Volunteer groups want to draft a migrant rights bill calling for food, medical care, mental health care and other basic needs, Noonan said.

Noonan went to the vigil to ensure migrants get the “dignity they deserve.”

Just a few weeks ago, thousands of migrants were sleeping on the ground and outside police stations in tents in subzero temperatures. The city has been scrambling to clear them out before winter descends on the camps.

More than 26,100 migrants have come to the city in the past fifteen months, and this number has not stopped. A chartered plane from Texas arrived at O’Hare International Airport Tuesday evening with more than 120 migrants on board, said Andrew Mahaleris, a spokesman for Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Five more buses were expected on Wednesday.

On Monday, more than 14,000 migrants stayed in 27 buildings across the city. Volunteers helping migrants at stations wonder whether the rush for shelter has led to overcrowded, unsanitary conditions in shelters.

On Tuesday, more than 2,400 migrants stayed in the reception center where Jean Carlos died.

Amy Blair, a family physician and associate professor at Loyola University Medical Center, echoed the sentiments of other volunteers that migrants received better medical care at police stations than in city-run shelters.

“It takes a lot of staff to provide acute care to 2,300 people in one place, and there are even more in shelters,” she says.

Blair provides medical services to migrants in Catherine-St. Lucy-St. Giles Parish in Oak Park. Migrant families take public transportation from shelters to receive care.

She said as a medical provider, it’s scary for her to send people back into a system that doesn’t have enough health care workers. What worries her most, she said, is how the 5-year-old’s death will affect other migrants.

“I think the fear of what happened in Halsted has probably reached other shelters,” she said.

Gabriela Ojeda, 21, a Venezuelan woman standing next to the crowd paying their respects to a small photo of Jean Carlos lit by candles, said she has been staying at the Halsted Street shelter for two months. She said everyone inside is sick.

“Because there is no space, the children sleep so close together. They catch diseases from each other,” she said.

She looked at her eleven-month-old son, wrapped in a blanket in her husband’s arms.

“It was him,” she said. “Who says it can’t be my child?”

nsalzman@chicagotribune.com

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