CHICAGO — Like the thousands of migrants who arrived in Chicago from the Texas border in the summer on charter buses, Rona Matahary Rozo, who was 30, had a dream of a better life in this country for her and her family. But on Dec. 2 she was found dead in a suburban hotel room that had been her home for nearly four months.
Rozo died by suicide, according to records from the medical examiner. Despite her resiliency following the journey north, she had been experiencing mental health issues, her sister Nefer Rozo told a local Spanish news outlet.
In New York, two migrants died by suicide in city-run shelters, according to local authorities. A mother died in September, and just last week a young father died.
“(Rona Rozo’s death) could have been prevented if she had gotten the help she needed,” Nefer Rozo said. The family is part of the group of migrants placed at the Holiday Inn Countryside, one of the hotels that state agencies have turned into temporary housing for the asylum-seekers.
On Dec. 12, she was laid to rest at Resurrection Cemetery, far from her native Venezuela.
While her family members mourn their loss, advocates worry that other migrants don’t have access to the appropriate resources to deal with mental health issues at shelters and temporary housing facilities.
The deaths by suicide serve as a warning about the mental health crisis that the migrants face living in shelters months after arriving in the country, and raise awareness of the support that must be provided beyond food and housing, said Oscar Chacon, co-founder and executive director of Alianza Americas, an umbrella group of immigrant-led and immigrant-serving organizations in the United States.
Nearly 4,000 migrants, mostly from Venezuela, have been bused to Chicago since August as part of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s move to protest federal immigration policies. Most migrants endure a monthslong trip through several countries before arriving at the southern border and turning themselves in. Many experience robberies, abuse, rape and hunger.
Those traumas are only a few of the many stressors that put migrants at risk of depression, anxiety and other serious mental health issues, said Emely Ledesma, a bilingual clinical social worker at the Marjorie Kovler Center who has worked with asylum-seekers and refugees for more than 30 years.
She said asylum-seekers often face a triple trauma paradigm: the pre-migration experience, which includes the potentially traumatic reasons why they had to leave their home; the journey to the United States, which is usually fraught with violence and dangerous conditions; and once they get to their destination, an open-ended uncertainty about their safety, their immigration status and separation from their families.
“People who are able to get a status here, who have a work permit, do much better,” Ledesma said.
But the reality is that the migrants arriving will not get a work permit anytime soon due to a backlog in the asylum-seeking process, and a lack of lawyers willing to take on the often complicated, lengthy and costly cases. The migrants’ time at shelters and hotels is also unknown since governmental agencies can’t legally connect them to jobs and therefore a more stable future, Chacon said.
“Migrants find themselves in a real conundrum because on one hand they are allowed to come in and apply for asylum but our laws basically deny them access to the most basic right that a person can have and that is the right to work legally in the country,” Chacon said. “That is a long-standing challenge that can cause confusion and despair, because for many that is their only goal.”
Though they’re grateful to have a warm place to sleep and plenty of food, some of the migrants at the Countryside hotel where Rozo lived, who did not want to share their names for fear of retaliation, described their temporary accommodations as “not favorable.” The place is far from the city, where they can connect with other immigrants, access public transportation and find jobs, they say.
Alfredo Gomez, 50, a former maintenance worker at the hotel said that most people at the hotel have been there for more than two months, and although children get to spend some time in the pool, there are few other things for them to do. “They seem desperate and frustrated,” he said. “They don’t know what will happen next.”
In a statement, a representative of Illinois Department of Human Services, which runs the shelters, said the agency supports the family of Rona Rozo and “the staff is committed to providing ongoing mental health support and services during this difficult time.”
“The IDHS expresses our sincerest condolences to the Rozo family at this time,” the statement said, but did not elaborate on the situation at the hotel and the future of the migrants who remain there.
Chicago Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, has criticized the way the city and state have responded to the humanitarian crisis, questioning the safety and security of the migrants under their shelter system. Sigcho-Lopez said he has received reports of “distressed migrants” and, after visiting a hotel in Harvey, he found that migrants were isolated, in need of mental health care, schooling and other critical services.
“(The recent suicide) is tragic because I believe it could have been prevented,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “When we have people who commit suicide out of despair of not being able to find any kind of support or safety net and not because of the lack of resources — we have resources but they are not allocated properly.”
Before more migrants start to lose hope that they will reach some sort of stability, and as more migrants arrive in the city, Sigcho-Lopez emphasized the need for city, state and federal governments to address the humanitarian crisis.
“The silence of more elected officials is concerning,” he said.
Chicago city officials declined to comment.
A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Human Services said in a statement that in the coming weeks, the focus of the temporary housing mission at hotels will be shifting from an “urgent response focused on supporting mothers, children, and families fleeing violence and persecution, to providing longer-term support for resettlement and permanent housing for the migrants.”
The department is implementing a resettlement plan for asylum seekers that includes housing counseling and access to expedited emergency rental assistance, according to the statement.
“To promote resilience and self-reliance, the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) aims to empower asylum seekers to make informed decisions about their futures for themselves. This will mean winding down temporary hotel operations in the coming months,” the statement said.
In New York City, the Department of Social Services said the agency is committed to use interagency coordination to connect migrants to mental health support.
“This is an absolutely heartbreaking tragedy, and we are working with the family to support them during this incredibly difficult time,” the email statement read.
Ledesma said there is an “unprecedented demand” for services in the program for survivors of torture, which primarily treats asylum-seekers. And more clinicians and volunteer licensed clinicians are needed to tend to the migrants.
Ledesma said it is important for leaders at the shelters to be aware of signs of depression and suicidal thoughts among migrants and to encourage them to seek help, even if the wait time may be long. Many people manifest their mental health issues by oversleeping, having nightmares, constantly saying they miss their family, experiencing fatigue and feeling a change in mood.
“Find community; create one with one another,” Ledesma said.
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