CHICAGO — About 1,600 migrants will be moved out of Chicago police stations in the coming weeks and into “winterized base camps” with huge tents, according to a new report.
The move is part of a new plan to tackle Chicago’s migrant humanitarian crisis, Mayor Brandon Johnson told the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman. But an alderman who heads the city’s immigrant rights committee said the base camps will “basically look like refugee camps.”
It’s “not the best look,” Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) said. “The bigger problem is we keep getting people arriving. The federal government has to step up.”
The tent structures could hold up to 1,000 migrants, but ideally house 500. Johnson told the Sun-Times his office has identified suitable locations across the city, but did not share any locations.
The administration didn’t offer any details on cost or how to pay for the tents. The plan to relocate asylum seekers also would involve providing meals, and recreational and educational programs instead of outsourcing to a private agency, according to the Sun-Times.
Johnson did not rule out budget cuts, tax increases or both in order to pay for the ongoing crisis, according to the Sun-Times, which is costing the city more than $30 million a month.
After four months in office, Johnson’s office has not articulated a plan to help shelter and care for more then 13,500 asylum seekers who have arrived in Chicago since August 2022.
There are nearly 2,000 migrants being housed in police stations and at O’Hare Airport, and 6,800 in 18 shelters across Chicago, officials said at a community meeting Wednesday.
Over months, Block Club Chicago has repeatedly asked the Mayor’s Office for details on the city’s longterm plan to address the migrant crisis but has not received substantiative responses. In an interview last month, Johnson pledged support to find suitable housing for migrants, but offered few specifics and did not offer a timetable for moving people out of police stations.
Johnson’s office did not respond to questions Wednesday or Thursday about the plan.
Alderpeople will be briefed on the city’s updated plans Friday, said Vasquez, who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
The idea Vasquez has heard is for city officials to set up “base camps” citywide to help the hundreds of people overflowing at police stations as the temperatures drop, he said.
When Chicago first started housing migrants in police stations as emergency overflow shelters over the winter, officials expected it’d be a temporary solution. But nine months later, men, women and children are still sleeping on police station floors in what volunteers have called “inhumane” conditions.
As of last week, around 200 migrants were living at the Near West (12th) District Police Station, 1412 S. Blue Island Ave., their sleeping bags and belongings covering nearly every inch of the station’s lobby.
Vasquez told Block Club that every police station is “basically overflowing with people at this point.”
“I just got a text message from the 20th District asking me about how they would get tents,” Vasquez said.
Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) told Block Club that although she doesn’t know yet what Johnson’s plan is, she doesn’t think the tents are a permanent solution.
“I don’t think that the tents are meant to be a permanent thing. I think that we’re getting way more people than we are able to have in police stations, and now the city is trying to figure out what are the other places where we can start opening up for people,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “But the tents aren’t meant to be an actual solution.”
‘I Think It’s The Best Of A Bad Situation’
Sylvia Puente, co-chair of the Illinois Latino Agenda and CEO of the Latino Policy Forum, told Block Club the mayor’s office shared briefly this week officials would be announcing plans for a “tent camp.” The information was shared after the Illinois Latino Agenda had a meeting with Johnson to highlight “key priority issues for members,” Puente said.
The idea for the tents came after Johnson’s office viewed over 200 potential sites to house people, and very few of those options are working out, Puente said,
Puente said the administration assured her the tents are durable and will be heated. Migrants will also continue to receive meals there and children will be enrolled in schools, she said.
“We have over 1,000 people sleeping in police stations, including children. This crisis created opportunity and creativity. And what I appreciate is that the city is so being proactive … I think it’s the best of a bad situation because there is no good solution,” Puente said.
Eréndira Rendon, vice president of immigrant justice with the Resurrection Project, agreed. Migrants can’t continue to sleep at police stations, and the winterized tents could be a good temporary solution, Rendon said.
“If these are temporary tents that are winterized, that are adequate, that have enough bathroom and ideally privacy space … and they’re [used] very temporary for a few weeks while shelters are opened up. … It’s going to be better conditions than what we’re seeing at police stations,” Rendon said.
The wave of migrants began arriving in Chicago after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other border state politicians bussed them to Democratic-led cities in protest of federal immigration laws starting in August 2022. Buses continue to arrive daily.
The majority of the arrivals are from Venezuela, which has struggled with political upheaval and an economic crisis resulting in severe food and medicine shortages, surging inflation, rising unemployment and violent crime.
More shelters are in the works.
City Council is poised to vote on a proposal to buy a former North Park marines building to convert it into a shelter that can house 500 people.
The city’s 19th shelter is scheduled to open next week at the Parthenon Guest House in Greektown. It will house 196 migrants.
A 20th shelter will open in Fulton Market by the end of the month, according to Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th). The 50,000-square-foot office building at 344 N. Ogden Ave. could house several hundred people, Burnett said.
Asked Thursday night about the tents plan, Burnett, who also serves as vice mayor, said he had only heard rumors of Johnson’s “winterized base camps,” but hasn’t heard anything official from the administration yet.
Two weeks after taking office, Johnson convinced City Council to approve $51 million for staffing, food, transportation and legal services at temporary shelters. That money carried the city through June 30.
Despite running out of money, migrants are flown from San Antonio to Chicago daily, said Beatriz Ponce de León, deputy mayor for immigrant, migrant and refugee rights. One to three buses arrive every day, Ponce de León said at a community meeting Wednesday.
When asked what residents could do to help, Ponce de León suggested people should advocate for federal aid.
Johnson, Pritzker, Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García and Sen. Dick Durbin are also pushing President Joe Biden’s administration to amend federal immigration law to fast-track work authorizations for migrants as they wait for their asylum cases to be heard.
“Immigration policy [and] resettlement efforts are a federal responsibility. We have been thrown in the midst of this, not just in Chicago but other cities, because Texas is putting people on buses,” Ponce de León said.
She also said other nearby towns have expressed interest in welcoming migrants, but did not specify which ones.
“…We do have a handful of our neighbors that are also welcoming to immigrants and want to find a way to plug in,” Ponce de León said. “I think it’s gonna look differently for each one depending on their capacity.”
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: