City Officials Evaluating Brighton Park Vacant Lot for ‘Winterized Base Camp’ for Migrants: Alderperson

Migrants outside a Chicago police station. (WTTW News)Migrants outside a Chicago police station. (WTTW News)

City officials are considering building a massive tent to house the more than 3,500 migrants now living at police stations and O’Hare International Airport on a vacant, privately-owned lot in Brighton Park, Ald. Julia Ramirez (12th Ward) said Sunday. 

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In a statement posted to her official social media accounts, Ramirez said she was working to gather information from the mayor’s office about the city’s plan to open a temporary shelter on a vacant lot near 38th Street and California Avenue. 

A spokesperson for Mayor Brandon Johnson did not respond to two requests for comment from WTTW News. Cristina Pacione Zayas, Johnson’s first deputy chief of staff, told reporters Thursday that an announcement of the location of what city leaders call “winterized base camps” was “imminent.” 

Ten days ago, Pacione Zayas acknowledged that it was taking longer than they had hoped to find locations for the tents and told reporters Thursday that just a quarter of alderpeople “understood the assignment” and identified potential locations for the massive tents in their wards.   

The Brighton Park lot is owned by the Harvey-based Sanchez Group, said Ramirez, who did not respond to a question about whether she suggested the lot as a potential location for the base camp to the mayor’s office.

The phone number listed on the firm’s website was not in service Sunday evening, and WTTW News could not obtain other contact information for the firm’s owners. 

City departments are currently evaluating the site, Ramirez said, promising to hold a meeting to “discuss the plan, area public safety, and gather feedback from residents and community stakeholders.” 

Ramirez, 32, was elected in February and is one of the youngest members of the City Council. A Johnson ally, Ramirez defeated former 12th Ward Ald. Anabel Abarca, who was appointed by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot to replace her ex-boss, former Ald. George Cardenas, who resigned after being elected to the Cook County Board of Review. 

The 12th Ward, which includes the McKinley Park as well as Brighton Park, is home to a majority of Latino residents.

Since the first group of migrants sent to Chicago on a bus by Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott arrived nearly 14 months ago, more than 18,500 people have made their way to Chicago, straining the city’s social safety net and exposing deep tension between Chicago’s Black and Latino communities.  

More than 3,567 migrants are living in police stations across the city and at O’Hare International Airport with another 11,043 migrants living in city shelters as of Friday, according to city data. Johnson has said the crisis was caused by “right-wing extremists bent on sowing chaos and division in our city.” 

Johnson first unveiled the plan to build the massive tents, which could shelter, feed and care for as many as 1,000 migrants in a single location, more than a month ago, triggering intense criticism from some of his closest allies, including Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th Ward), his hand-picked chair of the Immigrant and Refugee Rights. 

The city is set to pay $29 million to GardaWorld Federal Services to erect the tents to house the migrants, under a contract that was originally inked by state officials. Those plans call for soft-sided “yurt” structures to be built to hold 12 beds, with restrooms and dining halls serving several structures. 

“I am saddened by the possibility that we are on the precipice of this administration moving forward with building military-grade tent base camps in our great city,” Vasquez said on Sept. 29. 

Vasquez, like other progressive allies of Johnson, were furious that the city would do business with GardaWorld Federal Services, which contracted with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to move migrants to states led by Democrats, according to the Tampa Bay Times. That contract was never executed, firm officials told WTTW News. 

Pacione Zayas has told reporters the massive winterized tents will “center the dignity of the migrants” and will not force those arriving in the city to live in “sub-par conditions.” The city is simply unable to open enough shelters in existing businesses to keep pace with dozens of buses arriving every week, Pacione Zayas said. 

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has also criticized Johnson’s plan for the tents, telling reporters it would be better to house the migrants in unused federal buildings. 

Those remarks opened up a deep public breach between the Johnson and Pritzker administrations, with Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th Ward), the mayor’s closest ally on the City Council, blasting state officials for failing to do enough to respond to the humanitarian crisis. 

Johnson set aside $150 million to cover the cost of housing, feeding and caring for the men, women and children sent to Chicago from the southern border in 2024, even though that is less than half of what the city will have spent to care for Chicago’s newest arrivals through the end of 2023. 

The migrant crisis is likely to cost taxpayers $361 million between January and December 2023, according to updated financial projections released Thursday by the mayor’s office. 

Johnson asked the City Council to earmark less than the full projected cost to care for the migrants to acknowledge that the burden should not fall entirely on Chicago taxpayers, Pacione Zayas told reporters in a virtual briefing on Thursday. 

However, neither Gov. J.B. Pritzker nor House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch have given any indication they would support a measure providing the city with additional aid as part of a supplemental budget measure during the coming fall veto session in Springfield. 

Johnson bowed to that reality on Friday, telling reporters the city would ask state officials for additional financial help in January, as part of the state’s regular budget process. 

“We’ll have some very intentional asks about how we can align our levels of government to meet this demand,” Johnson said. 

The state has provided $330 million to the city of Chicago to care for the migrants who arrived during the first phase of the crisis between August and December 2022, according to Pritzker’s office. 

Two weeks ago, the governor’s office announced that the city would get an additional $30.25 million to care for the city’s newest arrivals. 

CBS2-TV was the first to report the city was considering building the massive tents near 38th Street and California Avenue. 

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

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