Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) stands with Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) at a City Council meeting on Sept. 14, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — As the city scrambles to house thousands of new arrivals, two aldermen want to scale back protections for migrants and refugees coming to the city.

A resolution introduced by Alds. Anthony Beale (9th) and cosponsored by Anthony Napolitano (41st) would add a referendum to the March 2024 primary ballot asking voters if Chicago should keep its sanctuary city designation.

The local Welcoming City ordinance means officials will not ask immigrants about their legal status or deny someone services based on it. It also means the city will not cooperate with federal U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities. Those protections were strengthened in 2021, closing loopholes that allowed police to work with ICE in certain scenarios.

Napolitano said the resolution, which has yet to be introduced to City Council, would give power to voters instead of politicians. He said residents will “suffer” if taxes increase to pay for migrant-related resources.

“Government has the best intention of this being the right thing to do but … it has hurt our city and and country financially,” Napolitano said. “You need to ask the tax-paying residents of your city, ‘Are we doing the right thing here?’ They need to be a part of the conversation, because this is catastrophic.”

Referenda can be added to election ballots via City Council ordinance or resolution, or a petition, according to guidelines from the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

Napolitano, who has long been against Chicago’s designation as a sanctuary city, said he assumes there will be a fraction of his colleagues who will try to bury the resolution to not deal with it or to negate fault, he said.

“I guarantee if this thing is held or hidden, it’s because they know that if you give the city residents the ability to vote on this, the numbers would be widely in favor of not being a sanctuary city,” he said. “We are not built for this.”

Migrants staying at the 18th Police District station in August play music, eat and hang outside during a recent heat wave. Credit: Ariel Parrella-Aureli/Block Club Chicago

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), chair of City Council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said the resolution could create a “slippery slope” around conversations regarding how governments are handling the migrant challenges.

“I think it’s beneath the values of our city,” Vasquez said. “I do understand that because we’re facing these challenges, a lot of folks can be reactionary and this is what it looks like to me. The concern people have is less about being a sanctuary city and more of how we address the situation and the job any administration would do.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said repealing the city’s Welcoming City ordinance would violate the Illinois Trust Act, enacted by the State of Illinois in 2017, which prohibits local law enforcement in Illinois from participating in immigration enforcement.

The Welcoming City ordinance has also helped restore trust between communities and police, Ramirez-Rosa said. Repealing it would “threaten the progress we’ve made on the consent decree,” and public safety, the alderman said. 

Research also shows that sanctuary cities are safer with less reported crime and have stronger economies compared to counties that cooperate with federal immigration enforcement, according to an NPR analysis

Mayor Brandon Johnson has previously said the city is facing a $538 million budget gap, around $200 million of which is tied to the migrant crisis, according to a report by the Sun-Times. In some interviews, he has not ruled out budget cuts or increasing property taxes to help make up the difference, but said in a statement he would not raise taxes in 2024.

Alderpeople and local officials repeatedly have pushed the state and federal government to help contribute to the costs. The city recently accepted $33 million from the feds to pay for food and shelter for thousands of asylum seekers.

Having transparent conversations on how city money is being spent to care for new arrivals is fair and essential to democracy, as is questioning how different city departments allocate their resources, Vasquez said.

Asked about Napolitano’s concerns about raising property taxes to pay for the humanitarian crisis, Vasquez said it was critical to consider how that money would be used to resolve issues around housing shortages and lack of resources.

“You can make the case that if you buy property, you end up with an asset that you can create affordable housing [and] for the unhoused, which addresses what we see on all our streets, in parks and viaducts across town,” he said. “Then you can create a system that rebuilds Chicago and leaves a better solution for everyone. I think that is something people would understand investing in, because we all end up with a greater benefit.”

Migrants are living in tents outside the 12th District Police Station in order to stay out of the rain. Credit: Alex Hernandez, Block Club Chicago

The city has spent nearly $133 million from August 2022 through July 2023 on the ongoing humanitarian crisis, according to a recent city presentation. The Mayor’s Office said it expects the crisis to cost the city another $123 million through the rest of the year.

Chicago’s total cost by the end of 2023 is estimated to hit $255 million.

The city also has signed a $29 million contract with GardaWorld to set up tent city “winterized base camps” for migrants.

Other City Council members have proposed changes to the city’s Welcoming City ordinance.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) introduced an ordinance at last week’s City Council meeting seeking to reestablish limits to sanctuary policies. The Southwest Side alderman said it was necessary because illegal activities at migrant shelters and police districts have increased in the city.

The ordinance was cosponsored by 15 other alderpeople, but Vasquez sent it to the council’s Rules Committee, typically where legislation goes to die.

A second ordinance from Beale, which Napolitano also cosponsored, would require that aldermen receive 30 days notice of the city’s plans to establish a shelter in their ward, and give written approval for any such plans.

The administrations of Mayors Lori Lightfoot and Brandon Johnson have garnered criticism for short-notice arrangement and lack of transparency around when, where and for how long the city will set up temporary shelters, giving local alderpeople and neighbors little opportunity to weigh in.

Since August 2022, more than 14,000 people, most from Central and South America, have arrived to Chicago. Buses are still coming daily. Many asylum seekers are from Venezuela, which has been struggling with an economic crisis that has caused severe food and medicine shortages, hyperinflation, widespread unemployment and violent crime.

There are over 2,100 migrants being housed in police stations and at O’Hare Airport, and 7,370 in 18 shelters across Chicago, according to city data.

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