At Heated Community Meeting, Officials Detail Plan to Transform Vacant Brighton Park Lot Into ‘Winterized Base Camp’ for Migrants

Video: WTTW News reporter Heather Cherone speaks to Ald. Julia Ramirez (12th Ward) ahead of Tuesday’s community meeting in Brighton Park.

City officials at a community meeting Tuesday evening revealed the first detailed plans for a massive tent on a vacant, privately owned lot in Brighton Park. Many furious residents urged Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration to scrap the proposal, while others vowed to protect and care for Chicago’s newest residents.

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While city officials said earlier Tuesday the site near 38th Street and California Avenue appears to be viable, they are still examining whether it is suitable as a temporary shelter to house some of the more than 3,100 men, women and children who are sleeping on the floors of police stations across the city and at O’Hare International Airport.

Deputy Mayor for Immigrant, Migrant and Refugee Rights Beatriz Ponce de León said tentative plans call for the base camp to house families with children in soft-sided “yurt” structures that will hold 12 beds, with several structures serving as restrooms and dining halls.

If plans are finalized, the base camp will open to house 500 people and expand to as many as 2,000 people, Ponce de León said. City officials are waiting for the results of environmental testing before deciding whether to move forward, according to Cristina Pacione Zayas, Johnson’s first deputy chief of staff.

“Using these base camps are a last solution,” Ponce de León said, adding that the city had exhausted all other options to transform existing businesses into shelters. 

Ald. Julia Ramirez (12th Ward) kicked off the standing-room only community meeting in the auditorium at Kelly High School by acknowledging how fraught the issue has become.

“The city is asking a lot of Brighton Park,” said Ramirez, who was attacked five days ago at a protest of the proposal where many of those in attendance carried signs warning that the base camp would hurt the safety of the neighborhood and lower their property values.

More than 3,129 migrants are living in police stations across the city and at O’Hare, with another 11,753 migrants living in city shelters as of Tuesday morning, according to city data.

In all, more than 19,000 migrants have been sent to Chicago from the southern border. Johnson has said the crisis was caused by “right-wing extremists bent on sowing chaos and division in our city.”

The crowd at the community meeting appeared to be starkly divided along racial lines, with many of the most vehement and emotional pleas to scrap the plan coming from Asian Chicagoans. Some Asian Chicagoans briefly chanted “send them back” as officials spoke about the plan.

By contrast, many of those who spoke in Spanish or English said they were heartbroken that the city had no better option for the migrants than tents, which they said they feared would not keep out the cold winter weather that is soon to settle over Chicago. Others demanded more city funds to help all unhoused Chicagoans. 

Speaking in Spanish, Maira Julieth Caicedo Silva said she came to Chicago a year ago on one of the first buses that arrived in the city.

“Please don’t hate us,” the 15-year-old girl said, breaking down in tears.

Speaking in Spanish, Maira Julieth Caicedo Silva said she came to Chicago a year ago on one of the first buses that arrived in the city. (Heather Cherone / WTTW News)Speaking in Spanish, Maira Julieth Caicedo Silva said she came to Chicago a year ago on one of the first buses that arrived in the city. (Heather Cherone / WTTW News)

As Maira Julieth cried, part of the crowd rose to their feet and began chanting “Si Se Puede,” the chant made famous by Latino labor union leader Cesar Chavez. 

Pacione Zayas said Maira Julieth was proof of Chicago’s greatness, and urged Chicagoans not to turn their back on her. As Pacione Zayas spoke, she was heckled by many Asian Chicagoans. 

Chicago’s Asian American community grew by 31% in the past decade, according to the 2020 census. Many live in the neighboring 11th Ward, which is centered around Chinatown and includes parts of nearby McKinley Park. 

Johnson first unveiled the plan to build the massive tents in early September, triggering intense criticism from some of his closest allies, including Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th Ward), his hand-picked chair of the Committee on 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.

Vasquez, like other progressive allies of Johnson, was furious that the city would do business with GardaWorld, 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.

Johnson officials have 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, officials 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.

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

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