REALTOR® Helps Make Chicago Home for Influx of Migrants

Real estate professional Erika Villegas has assembled hundreds of volunteers to provide meals and essentials to migrant families coming to the Windy City.

Erika Villegas has a reputation for getting things done for people. “I help whoever needs help,” she says. “If there’s a need, I’m going to try and figure it out.”

So, when an influx of migrant families started coming to Chicago from the southern U.S. border in 2023, one of Villegas’s clients, a police officer, called her for help. “I naively thought we could get the families into a shelter,” says Villegas, ABR, designated managing broker at RE/MAX in the Village. “We quickly realized that wasn’t an option, though, because there weren’t any beds anywhere.”

The migrants—arriving by the thousands—had no other option but to stay at police stations around the city. Villegas and a few of her friends decided they would provide as many migrant families with meals as possible until they found more permanent housing. But at one point, she was making 600 breakfast sandwiches in her own kitchen, and the effort became unsustainable.

Villegas devised a new plan to rally friends, colleagues and clients, asking each of them to cover the cost of one meal for a migrant family. “It just kind of snowballed after that,” she says. “We had 300 volunteers across 24 police stations. I set up a Whatsapp chat to coordinate volunteers.”

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Some volunteers were tasked with keeping a count of the families that were being housed at the stations. “It went from 500 to 600—and then to 700,” Villegas says. At one point, volunteers counted 2,000 families, many of whom had been staying at a police station for as long as four months. Every station was set up as a mini tent city.

Villegas and her team of volunteers sourced essential goods from companies like Pepsi Co. and organizations like United Way and Chicago’s Southwest Collective. “My garage became a mini warehouse,” Villegas says. “I got weekly deliveries of water, soda and tea from Pepsi. United Way donated 500 kits full of necessities like toothpaste and soap. We received boxes of diapers and underwear. I keep a stash of everything in my car because you just never know who’s going to need something.”

Though most of the nearly 40,000 migrants Chicago received in the past year are now in shelters or more stable housing, it’s not enough, Villegas says. In January alone, 13,000 migrants in shelters were at risk of eviction but had no alternative living arrangement. What’s most frustrating to Villegas, who is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, is the lack of assistance from city and county government officials. The migrants need help with work permits, paperwork and enrolling their children in school, she says.

Villegas’ grandparents migrated to the U.S. in the late-1960s to work, save money and return home to their family in Mexico. But they came back to America with their five children, including Villegas’s mother. “When I see all these children sleeping in police stations or on the street, I can’t help but think that could have been my family,” Villegas says. “And that was just 50 years ago. I can’t allow for us to forget where we came from.”

Villegas says her family had connections in the states, other migrant families they could turn to for temporary shelter or help. “The people that are coming here now are often the first ones from their families to migrate, and they don’t have that support,” she adds.

Though she’s helped raise $10,000 in cash, $20,000 worth of essential supplies, gathered hundreds of volunteers and coordinated nonprofit help, Villegas wants to make more sustainable change. So, she’s getting involved in policy.

Every Wednesday, she and a few volunteers meet with Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson's team at the Office of Immigrant, Migrant and Refugee Rights to discuss expediting work permits for migrants and connecting with other cities and towns in Illinois for greater resources. “We’re often asking the same questions, but we’re also bringing solutions to the table,” Villegas says. “I’m learning, though, that policy change takes time.”

Villegas says she will continue to help migrants in whatever way she can as long as her real estate career affords her the time, flexibility and resources to give back. “When we have the power and ability to help someone because we’ve built a life that makes that possible, then we have to do that.”