Migrant Crisis Escalates as Johnson Administration Struggles to Identify Locations for Tents

Video: Joining “Chicago Tonight: Latino Voices” to discuss the ongoing humanitarian crisis are Baltazar Enriquez, president of the Little Village Community Council; Cristina De La Rosa, executive director of Erie Neighborhood House; Annie Gomberg, lead organizer at District 15 for the Police Station Response Team; and Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward). (Produced by Acacia Hernández)

Nearly a month after Mayor Brandon Johnson announced plans to move the thousands of migrants being forced to sleep on the floor of police stations and at the city’s airports into large tents, Chicago officials have yet to identify a location to build what they call “winterized base camps.”

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Cristina Pacione Zayas, Johnson’s first deputy chief of staff, said officials were still scouting locations for the massive tents, which could shelter, feed and care for as many as 1,000 migrants in a single location. Johnson and his aides have defended that plan as the best — and only — option available to the city, given the lack of available existing buildings that can be converted quickly into shelters.

“Welcome to government,” Pacione Zayas said. “This is how it works.”

Pacione Zayas acknowledged during a virtual briefing with reporters on Thursday that it has taken longer than they hoped to find locations for the tents, a task made more urgent by the fact that cold weather is finally scheduled to arrive in Chicago this weekend, with temperatures dipping into the low 40s.

Pacione Zayas called dropping temperatures a “grave concern.”

That has prompted officials to work with county and state officials to try to find alternative sites large enough to house the approximately 3,200 men, women and children now living at police stations across the city and at O’Hare and Midway Airports, Pacione Zayas said. Another 10,200 people are living in city shelters, according to city data.

 “Everything is on the table,” Pacione Zayas said.

In the past seven days, more than 2,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago after crossing the country’s southern border, a significant escalation of the humanitarian crisis that confronted Johnson after he took office in May and has consumed his administration.

In all, more than 17,000 people, many fleeing violence and economic collapse in Venezuela, have made their way to Chicago in the past 13 months. All are in the country legally after requesting asylum.

That has strained the city’s social safety net, ballooned the city’s budget shortfall and exacerbated tension between Chicago’s Black and Latino communities.

City officials expect more than a dozen buses full of migrants paid for by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to arrive in Chicago every day, at all hours, for the foreseeable future, Pacione Zayas said. Many are arriving sick and without proper clothing for a Midwestern fall, she added.

Texas officials should stop “recklessly” putting vulnerable people on buses at all hours of the day and night, Pacione Zayas said.

Other people are arriving in Chicago on buses paid for by the city of El Paso, while others are flying to Chicago on tickets paid for by nonprofit organizations, Pacione Zayas said.

Johnson has been deluged with criticism for his decision to partner with the state of Illinois and pay $29 million to GardaWorld Federal Services, to erect the tents to house the migrants, even as that firm was used by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to move migrants to states led by Democrats, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th Ward), the chair of the City Council’s Immigration and Refugee Rights Committee, said Sept. 29 he was saddened by the plan to “build military-grade tent base camps in our great city” and Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Sept. 28 it would be better to house the migrants in unused federal buildings rather than in massive tents.

The governor’s comments made public the deep tension between Johnson and Pritzker, who had otherwise been in lockstep, over how best to handle the escalating crisis.

Pritzker on Monday demanded that President Joe Biden do more to help Chicago and Illinois officials care for the migrants, blaming federal officials for creating “an untenable situation for Illinois.”

In response to that criticism, the Biden administration acknowledged Thursday it had sent a team from the Department of Homeland Security to Chicago “to assess the current migrant situation and identify ways that the city and the federal government can improve efficiencies and maximize resources.”

Johnson told reporters on Wednesday that he welcomed that team’s arrival and planned to make a trip of his own to the southern border to get a first-hand look at the situation facing Texas.

No alderperson has publicly volunteered to have the base camps built in their wards, and efforts by the Johnson administration to open new shelters in facilities like Chicago Park District fieldhouses have faced concerted opposition from residents.

Since Sept. 8, when Johnson announced his plan to shelter migrants in massive tents, the number of new arrivals in Chicago has grown by more than 25%, according to city data.

That astronomical means officials are grappling with an entirely “different landscape,” Pacione Zayas said.

“We have to think outside of the box and be creative,” Pacione Zayas said, telling reporters the city will need more financial help from the state and federal governments.

Johnson acknowledged the crisis is taking a toll on Chicagoans.

“It’s a tremendous sacrifice for the people of Chicago,” Johnson said. “And I certainly know how hard it has been for the people of Chicago.

That pain has been most acute in Black neighborhoods that have suffered from decades of disinvestment that has mired generations in poverty.

“I know where I live, I know how many schools have been shut down in Austin, mental health clinics,” Johnson said. “Administration after administration has taken away from Black people. Not mine. When individuals say that Black folks want what migrants want, that’s not true. It’s not. Black folks want what they deserve.”

Johnson directly blamed Republicans for sending migrants to states and cities controlled by Democratic leaders as part of an effort to harm Biden’s chances for reelection that he connected to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as well as efforts to prevent Biden from taking office.

“This is the same party that tried to overturn an election,” Johnson said. “You can’t put anything past these individuals. So, absolutely, they want to punish Chicago for being the greatest freakin’ city in the world.”

Johnson vowed to continue to care for Chicago’s newest arrivals and cast that increasingly difficult task as part of a larger fight to preserve democracy in the face of attacks launched by former President Donald Trump and his supporters and allies.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that those who want to disrupt our democracy are committed to doing that,” Johnson said. “Without action, the type of chaos that the Republican Party is causing is going to be greater.”

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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