Jan 23, 2024 - News

How Detroiters are supporting migrants

Photo illustration of a collage of a chalkboard, abstract scribbles and family holding hands.

Photo illustration: Allie Carl/Axios; Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Churches, nonprofits and businesses are coming together to help migrant families living in Detroit.

Driving the news: About six weeks ago, pastor Barry Randolph says the Church of the Messiah noticed "a sudden influx of Latinos" in the neighborhood.

  • The following Sunday, Randolph says about half of the congregation was made up of Spanish speakers who told church staff they were staying at a nearby shelter operated by the Detroit Rescue Mission.

What they're saying: "Some of our folks went down there, started finding out what folks needed and what we were shocked at was, not a lot of them were dressed for winter," Randolph says. "This is a humanitarian — a human rights issue."

  • Randolph says he called City Council member Gabriela Santiago-Romero and did not expect her to visit the church, "but she came and explained to me that Southwest Detroit was overwhelmed and so they had to place them in other parts of the city."
  • Randolph says Santiago-Romero told him there's as many as 1,500 migrants who have arrived since last month.

What's happening: Local shelters are being filled with migrants seeking asylum from Latin America and West Africa. There are 1,100 shelter and warming center beds being operated in the city to house homeless individuals.

  • The increase in migrants prompted the city to add 200 emergency shelter beds since last winter, David Bowser, chief of housing solutions and support services at Detroit's Housing and Revitalization Department, tells Axios.

Zoom in: Three of the city's 16 shelters are designated for unhoused migrants and asylum-seekers: 94 beds for families are located on East Grand Boulevard and 50 beds for adult men are on Mack Avenue. Freedom House Detroit, a private facility that receives city funding, is sheltering about 75 migrants.

  • Bowser says there are about 225 unhoused migrants and asylum-seekers being sheltered by the city and nonprofit and private agencies.
  • The largest of the three designated shelters, at East Grand Boulevard, is just blocks from Church of the Messiah. "A number of individuals wanted to attend Sunday church services and we appreciate Pastor Barry's compassionate embrace of these families," Bowser said in a statement.

Between the lines: Randolph leads the Church of the Messiah, the area's largest developer and the operator of 213 affordable housing units. He believes the biggest problem with housing migrants is that many lack documentation or the ability to legally work. "A number of folks are working to help get them documented and granted work authorization," he says.

State of play: Laura Chavez-Wazeerud-Din, president of the Southwest Detroit Business Association, tells Axios her organization has called on businesses to donate winter clothing items to migrants in recent weeks. The SDBA also made two separate donations to Freedom House.

  • "The Shop Screen Printing on Bagley in our Mexican corridor donated items, Nice Price was gracious enough to give us 100 wool hats and was willing to donate blankets," Chavez-Wazeerud-Din says.

The big picture: Unauthorized border crossings along the country's Southwest border have been a point of contention among federal, state and local Democrats in the months since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott started busing migrants to Democratic sanctuary cities.

Yes, but: So far, Abbot hasn't given any attention to Detroit.

  • While Wayne County has considered itself a "sanctuary county," Detroit does not.
  • Detroit Police Department policy is that officers do not ask for immigration status during traffic stops, but the city cooperates when Immigration and Customs Enforcement issue a detainer.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to clarify that Detroit is not a "sanctuary city." DPD has cooperated with federal immigration officials since before 2017, when Wayne County declared itself a "sanctuary county."


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