Johnson plan to add $70M for migrant response moves forward

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s request for another $70 million to maintain the city’s migrant response advanced in the City Council Monday.

The plan passed the Budget and Government Operations Committee in a 20-to-8 vote following contentious debate over the continued costly effort to care for the city’s recent migrants arrivals, including thousands of asylum-seekers who fled crisis in Venezuela. The outcome puts the proposal up for a full City Council vote set for Wednesday.

“I will be a yes on this today because I know we need the funding,” said Ald. Nicole Lee, 11th. “But there has to be more transparency. People need to understand how these funds are being spent.”

City budget director Annette Guzman told aldermen the projected needs were estimated by modeling how many immigrants will come to Chicago in coming months. The Johnson administration does not expect to ask for more migrant-earmarked money this year, she said.

Guzman warned aldermen of the costs of not passing the funding package. Without a dedicated funding stream to make expensive projects such as Chicago’s 18 operating migrant shelters possible, the migrants who come to the city could instead end up stretching other city resources, including hospitals and the Fire Department, she said. Many could be forced to live in parks or again turn to police stations for housing, she added.

“If we don’t do anything, something is going to bust,” Vice Mayor Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th, said. “I know we have to do something to contain the situation.”

Chicago has already budgeted $150 million to be spent on the migrant response this year. But the amount is not enough to sustain the basic housing, food and case management services the city has provided the nearly 40,000 migrants who have arrived via bus and plane, many sent by Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott, since August 2022, Johnson said.

In February, Illinois and Cook County leaders pledged they will spend $250 million to fund the continued migrant response, leaving a $70 million gap to reach the projected $320 million needed. At the time, Johnson bristled at reports he had agreed to fill that gap, saying there are “a number of matters that need to be worked through.”

However, the mayor moved to secure that money last week. His administration pitched aldermen on the idea in a series of small briefings. At Monday’s hearing, some council members criticized how the mayor went about asking for it.

The $70 million from the city will come from previous city surpluses that have not been allocated yet, similar to a budgetary trick former Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced for a migrant appropriation item during her last weeks in office.

Some aldermen criticized Johnson’s administration for not using those funds on other crises. Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th, said the city should instead spend the money to help West Side residents repair homes damaged in flooding last summer.

“We are forgetting about the residents that actually live here,” Taliaferro said. “When we have forgotten about the family that lives here, it becomes very difficult for me to support another $70 million going somewhere else.”

Ald. David Moore, 17th, argued the money could instead be spent to fight gun violence, citing three shootings and two shooting deaths that occurred in his ward over the weekend. Past mayoral administrations have asked aldermen how to better help their neighborhoods, Moore said, but “that has yet to happen in this administration.”

“We can’t keep asking and asking and no one can point to anything. That’s a sign of total, blatant disrespect,” Moore said.

Aldermen opposed to and supportive of the funding plan agreed wholeheartedly on one point: that the federal government has failed to meaningfully support Chicago’s migrant response. The city and state were given $19 million in new congressionally-approved funding Friday, an allotment Ald. Marty Quinn, 13th, called “a drop in the bucket” and “wholly inadequate.”

In recent months, the number of migrants residing in Chicago shelters has sharply dropped from 14,900 in late December to around 9,200. Meanwhile, the city has ramped up efforts to lower and spread the cost of the migrant response, including by opening a new shelter alongside the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Zakat Foundation earlier this month.