Migrants keep coming to Chicago, and Mayor Johnson hides welcome mat

A woman from Ecuador and her son walk near the city’s landing zone for migrants in the West Loop.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s budget that he passed last November deliberately underfunded programs for asylum-seekers. The meager appropriation could be exhausted by April, but nobody knows yet what the city plans to do when it reaches that point.

Also last November, Gov. J.B. Pritzker made it clear to reporters “the state doesn’t run shelters” and said he was waiting for the city to recommend shelter sites. “The state doesn’t control property in the city of Chicago that could provide a location. The city really has to do that.”

Pritzker also criticized the city for not asking the General Assembly for additional money and noted, “We have spent much more money to support the system of asylum-seekers arriving here than the city has.”

In December, the state declined to fund a huge, 2,000-bed tent shelter in the city’s Brighton Park neighborhood after an evaluation of a city contractor’s report by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found the remediation completed by the city “did not meet IEPA standards to receive [a formal letter stating no more mediation was needed] and was therefore not approved,” an IEPA spokesperson reiterated last week.

The city was furious at the denial, and Johnson complained to reporters again last week that the state still has not fulfilled its promise to open those 2,000 new beds. The state claimed then and has ever since then that, despite repeated requests, the city has not yet offered up any more sites. Johnson told reporters this was not true. I’m still checking on this.

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Also in December, Johnson announced a program to ticket and even impound buses carrying migrants to the city from Texas unless drivers followed rules for when and where their passengers could be dropped off.

That quickly had the effect of forcing the bus companies to dump people in the suburbs and exurbs, where they are then directed to public transportation to Chicago. During the week ending Jan. 19, not a single bus from Texas arrived directly in Chicago, according to a document released to city officials.

Mayor’s no longer very welcoming

The city has opened no new migrant shelters since November, although Chicago officials made it appear as if they were still working on plans to do so in December, specifically a shelter on the city’s Northwest Side at a site owned by the Catholic Archdiocese. Will Chicago still open and operate that shelter? No. But the city has been hoping the state and/or the Archdiocese could open it, and now I’m hearing the shelter might possibly go forward.

On Jan. 12, city officials went even further and told state legislators the city had “begun planning for rightsizing” its shelter system. That’s corporate-speak for “downsizing,” although a city official now says they probably shouldn’t have used that word.

And then last week, Johnson told reporters the state government “can build a shelter anywhere in the state of Illinois,” adding the state “does not have to build a shelter in Chicago.”

This, of course, ignores the fact the migrants’ stated preference is a Chicago destination. More importantly, it’s also the politically targeted destination set by the Texas governor. In other words, the mayor can say what he wants, but they’re coming regardless.

His comment also ignores the fact the state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure and caring for asylum-seekers in Chicago. Expanding that out would be prohibitively expensive and disperse scarce human resources.

There are only so many people who are willing to do the work and qualified to do it. Dispersing those workers throughout a large geographic area would make their task a lot tougher. It may be unfair to the city, but that’s where the infrastructure is.

Not to mention that suburban mayors aren’t exactly falling all over themselves to take any of these folks in. When a reporter asked Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle last week if any suburban mayors had taken up her offer to open shelters, Preckwinkle said, “Those conversations didn’t result in offers of assistance.”

It’s becoming more clear almost every day that, despite his initial promises to welcome the new arrivals with open arms and share with them the city’s “abundance,” Johnson’s aim for weeks if not months has been to pull back from the task of accepting and caring for the continuing influx of asylum-seekers and return to his progressive agenda, like banning natural gas connections in most new construction.

Meanwhile, April gets closer every day.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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