Highland Park, News

Following lead of numerous suburbs, Highland Park will issue fines for unscheduled migrant bus dropoffs

Citing the need to protect migrants from being “abandoned” in Highland Park by buses transporting them from southern border states, the Highland Park City Council voted unanimously at its Jan. 16 meeting to approve an ordinance that would fine bus companies for doing so without alerting the city beforehand.

The move, Mayor Nancy Rotering told colleagues at a Committee of the Whole session prior to the council meeting, was because Highland Park supports a “humane response” to people “trying to become part of our welcoming culture.”

“It is part of Highland Park’s values, part of what we stand for, to support the humane care of individuals, regardless of their legal status, regardless of where they’ve come from,” she said.

City Manager Ghida Neukirch said at the committee session that the ordinance largely mirrors those enacted by more than 40 suburban Chicago communities, including Winnetka, and by Chicago. It also follows two December incidents in which migrants were dropped off with no notice or help, she said. In those cases, the city followed regulations set up by the state and county, advising municipalities to route migrants to Chicago’s official migrant intake center and its services, she said.

The ordinance doesn’t address migrants specifically, City Counsel Steve Elrod said at the committee meeting. Instead it addresses the buses without requiring passengers’ IDs or social security numbers, and would govern any bus doing dropoffs, including school or bar mitzvah buses, he said. It would apply to all one-way transportation of more than 10 passengers that are subsequently dropped off in the city.

The ordinance amends two chapters of city code, requiring buses owners, operators and drivers of intercity buses to give Highland Park notice at least five days ahead of a dropoff, and information about the number of passengers involved, as well as a written plan stating who will be there to meet the passengers, and how they will be cared for.

Fines for not doing so would start at $750 for the first offense, $1,000 for the second and $1,500 for each subsequent offense. Each fine would be in addition to any costs the city incurs. The ordinance also allows the city to impound buses who arrive without meeting city requirements. 

The city is now preparing care kits for any migrants dropped off in future, Nuekirch said. Those include snacks, hygiene items and books in Spanish for children, among other items.

Before the council’s vote, it heard from Lee and Nancy Goodman, Northbrook activists and residents who are members of Witness at the Border, a migrant advocacy group which monitors activities at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Lee Goodman spoke about a recent trip to the Arizona-Mexico border, and told trustees that migrants give up everything to come to the U.S., risking assault, rape and death to reach it. 

He then called the ordinance language an attempt to hide the fact migrants are its focus: “This ordinance is not fooling anyone. You pretend it’s to help people. But you’re trying to keep these people from getting off in your town.”

He and Nancy Goodman urged the council to consider migrants as people, not as problems, and to react to them in the same manner they might to someone in their town having an emergency requiring immediate help. 

“Look at this as an opportunity to help people and to live up to what I think Highland Park really does stand for,” Lee Goodman said. 

“I have no doubt if I tripped coming into this room, I would be helped,” Nancy Goodman said. “I have no doubt that people here are kind and good. I appreciate the things you’ve mentioned, the care packages and trying to get them transport. I guess we’re wondering if you could do more.”

She went on to ask what the city would do if a “rogue bus” dropped off migrants in the middle of the night. 

After they spoke, Trustee Andres Tapia — who said before the ordinance was introduced that he was proud of “our focus on safety, on compassion, and also spoke briefly in Spanish about it — asked Neukirch what the city does in such situations.

“If it happens in the middle of the evening … we do have plans in place to provide temporary overnight and food service, to make sure they’re comfortable,” Neukirch said, adding that the city also communicates with Highland Park Hospital, although there has been no situation requiring hospital help.

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Kathy Routliffe

Kathy Routliffe reported in Chicago's near and North Shore suburbs (including Wilmette) for more than 35 years, covering municipal and education beats. Her work, including feature writing, has won local and national awards. She is a native of Nova Scotia, Canada.

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