Cristina Pacione-Zayas, first deputy chief of staff to Mayor Brandon Johnson, and Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) listen to comments from members of the City Council's Committee on Immigration and Refugee Rights. Credit: Mick Dumke/Block Club Chicago

CITY HALL — In an unusual meeting Wednesday, officials from Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration told alderpeople they have a “coordinated strategy” to move migrants out of police stations and into shelters and permanent housing. 

But in addition to the discussion of those plans, the meeting of the City Council’s Immigration and Refugee Rights was notable for the fact that it happened at all, as the committee hadn’t taken action in more than a year and a half.

It was only the second time the committee met since September 2021 — even as the arrival of thousands of asylum seekers and other migrants since last summer built into a humanitarian crisis, leaving families sleeping on police station floors

And the committee held its first vote since 2021: under the leadership of its new chair, Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), committee members Wednesday approved a resolution calling on themselves to meet once a month to discuss the city’s response to the migrant crisis.

The resolution is nonbinding and doesn’t carry the weight of law. That means it was a symbolic but public declaration that the committee will actually do something other than spend taxpayer money in the months ahead.

The resolution might be laughable except that the council has a long history of committees that spend money but accomplish nothing. While council committees are supposed to provide oversight and shape policies, four of the current 20 committees haven’t even met in five months or more.

RELATED: As Chicago Struggled With Migrant Crisis, City Council’s Immigration Committee Didn’t Meet For More Than A Year

Vasquez, who introduced the resolution, opened the Wednesday meeting by declaring the immigration and refugee rights committee had to do better.

The city, he said, needs to live up to its own “welcoming city” ordinance by being prepared to help everyone who moves here as well as people who are homeless and those who are born in Chicago.

“We have much work to do,” he said.

Ald. Andre Vasquez Jr. (40th) speaks during a press conference at City Hall on Dec. 14, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

The stakes are clear, as city officials reinforced during a presentation in the two-hour meeting.

As of this week, nearly 11,000 asylum seekers and other migrants have come to Chicago from border states since last August, said Cristina Pacione-Zayas, Johnson’s first deputy chief of staff. While many have found housing or moved on to other cities, almost 5,000 are staying in shelters, and nearly 700 are “awaiting placement” while sleeping in police stations or O’Hare airport.

And people keep coming. The city is now planning to open at least five more shelters while building more “infrastructure” to help people find permanent housing, Pacione-Zayas said. To do that, officials are working on improved communication and partnerships with the county and state, philanthropic organizations and community groups. 

“The goal is to decompress police stations,” she said.. “I think all of us are painfully aware that police stations are not designed for this type of service.”

Pacione-Zayas detailed how the city has spent more than $101 million on the new migrants since January. She told the committee that the Johnson administration was also focused on helping longtime Chicagoans struggling with homelessness. And she promised city officials would keep alderpeople in the loop.

“We heard loud and clear that many folks felt that they had not been briefed or had not been brought into the conversations and felt blindsided by some of the decisions that had been made,” Pacione-Zayas said.

Without saying so outright, Pacione-Zayas was referring to anger and frustration from alderpeople who complained that city officials under former Mayor Lori Lightfoot never developed clear plans for coping with the migrant crisis — and did a lousy job of communicating what steps they did take.

But the escalating crisis has also reflected the council’s own failures, exposing a committee system that has often been used to reward allies with patronage jobs rather than provide oversight of city policies and taxpayer dollars.

As Block Club reported this spring, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot engineered the creation of the immigration committee in 2021 and put Ald. Ariel Reboyras (31st), a mayoral loyalist, in charge of it. Over the next two years, Reboyras used $196,000 in taxpayer funds to pay three employees.

Yet the committee took no action to pass laws or provide oversight of the city’s immigration policies, even as thousands of asylum seekers and migrants arrived on buses, trains and planes needing shelter and food. Reboyras retired when the previous council term ended last month.

Dozens of South American migrants seek temporary shelter at the Chicago Police 12th District station on the Near West Side on May 9, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

After winning the mayoral election in April, Johnson installed his own picks to lead the council’s 20 committees. That included naming Vasquez to take over leadership of the immigration committee. Johnson also got the council to increase the budgets for a number of committees, including immigration. Its funding was boosted from $120,465 to $200,000 a year.

Like Vasquez, many of the other new chairs — along with rookie alderpeople — have vowed to increase oversight and get more involved in shaping city policies than their predecessors did.

But some of the council committees have still not met for months. The Committee on Aviation hasn’t met since last September. Neither has the Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity. The Committee on Education and Child Development last met in November, while the Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy hasn’t convened since January. 

The contracting, education and environment committees all have new chairs who have only been in those positions since mid-May. But the aviation committee has been led under three mayors by Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th). 

“I’ve never been a fan of having a meeting just to have a meeting,” O’Shea previously told Block Club.

The immigration committee meeting Wednesday was the first under Vasquez and included several new members, including four council rookies. A number of alderpeople expressed gratitude and even amazement that the committee was holding city officials accountable for providing figures and plans about helping the migrants, even though that’s the committee’s job.

“First, let me say thank you,” second-term Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), the committee’s vice chair, said to the city officials. “These are meetings that we have been asking for since last year.”

“It’s really refreshing to get a lot of details,” said Ald. Maria Hadden (49th). “A lot of us have felt really in the dark.”

“Thank you for being here this morning,” added Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd). “This is actually a great start.”

Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd), expressed his appreciation to Vasquez. “Congratulations on having a committee meeting in the first days of your chairmanship.”

Ald. Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth (48th) echoed that. “Congratulations to the chair and the vice chair of the committee,” she said, noting it stood in stark contrast to what had happened in the previous term.

Vasquez closed the meeting by thanking everyone who attended. “I know it seems like it’s been forever since this committee met.”

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