Mayor Brandon Johnson offers empathy but no immediate solutions as he visits migrant shelters

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Mayor Brandon Johnson spent his first full day in office Tuesday visiting Chicago government facilities housing migrants, including a Pilsen police station and Little Village park center where he decried Republican governors who continue busing asylum-seekers to the city.

“It’s wicked. It’s unconscionable. But as you all know, the city of Chicago is coming together to make sure that people who wish to find real comfort here in the city of Chicago, that we provide that,” Johnson said. “Now I’m here today because I needed to see it firsthand.”

While Johnson extended empathy to the migrants, he offered few concrete solutions to a crisis that is projected to continue with thousands more migrants expected to arrive in coming weeks as the city continues taking on millions of dollars in new expenses.

Johnson highlighted work done by New Life, a Little Village nonprofit that’s helped find housing for migrants, and said he hopes whoever fills the newly created deputy mayor for immigrant, migrant and refugee rights will also bring people together.

Johnson’s visits came one day after his inaugural address where he tried to settle tensions about the often-divisive issue by saying, “there’s enough room for everyone in the city of Chicago.”

It also came one week after his predecessor, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, said Chicago has “reached a breaking point” and declared a state of emergency as more than 8,000 migrants have arrived here seeking asylum since August. Many have arrived in buses from Texas after crossing the U.S. southern border seeking refuge.

The emergency order enables the mayor to more easily use emergency funds and request the aid of the Illinois National Guard. Asked if he’s considering inviting in the National Guard, Johnson said there are numerous considerations to take into account before such a decision is made.

The crisis in Chicago began nine months ago, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, sent the first busloads of migrants north from mainly Central and South America, arguing border towns had run out of room and resources to shelter migrants and said “sanctuary cities” such as Chicago should accept them.

Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and others have derided Abbott’s action as a cruel political stunt but Abbott maintains his actions are a cry for help until President Joe Biden and other Democrats fix the escalating crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, where refugees often fleeing violence and persecution are bottlenecking at unprecedented numbers.

How the situation at these official ports-of-entry plays out in coming weeks and months remains in flux as federal border restrictions that were put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic expired last week. Its end could spell a new era of record migration, though so far it seems the biggest flood of migrants came in the days preceding the expiration.

But in Chicago, the new arrivals are finding an increasingly fraying safety net as the city is expected to run out of funds for migrant assistance by the end of June, while assistance from state and federal governments has been lacking.

Some aldermen, meanwhile, have bristled at increasing funding for migrants, saying the city should be caring for citizens first.

“I cannot support and take the oxygen mask off of my community to add it somewhere else,” Ald. David Moore, 17th, said last week after the City Council’s budget committee approved allocating $51 million in surpluses to keep shelter and food operations running through next month. The measure requires the full approval of the council, which meets next week.

The $51 million comes from unspent city funds and follows $15 million the city allocated for migrant services as well as grants from the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But the total from all three sources will be far from enough, city leaders have said.

“They’re saying Chicago is a great place to go. If you go there, they have resources, they will feed you,” city Department of Family and Support Services Commissioner Brandie Knazze said during last week’s budget committee meeting. “You come to America thinking that there’s the American Dream, and someone says yes. You trust them, you don’t know, and then they get here (Chicago), and then they’re just waiting.”

In that hearing, budget officials said the city first requested $53.5 million from the state and only got $20 million. When it asked a second time, for $61.7 million, the state granted just $10 million. An additional $66.7 million request to FEMA was met with only a $4.3 million award.

Amid the pressure, Pritzker’s administration has said the state has spent $260 million on shelter and care for asylum-seekers.

But the harsh living conditions continue to unfold in Chicago.

As of last week, about 450 migrants waited for days in police stations where they huddled inside lobbies and the floors were covered nearly wall-to-wall with makeshift beds. About 150 migrants arrived each day last week, at this point usually by plane and under the coordination of Texas nonprofits, despite city officials communicating that Chicago was at capacity.

There are seven shelters and three respite centers operating with a total population of 3,200 asylum-seekers — more than the 3,000 living in Chicago’s existing homeless shelter system.

All the while, tensions are growing in neighborhoods where officials have hoped to direct migrants.

A plan to house some refugees at South Shore High School was met with a lawsuit last week by neighbors who argued their historically underserved community was being pushed to the wayside in favor of new arrivals. Similar protests have occurred in Woodlawn over the proposed use of the shuttered Wadsworth Elementary School, which now shelters 500 migrants.

And that $20 million allocation from the state was almost scuttled in March when 15 aldermen unsuccessfully sought to block its acceptance, citing displeasure with how Lightfoot had communicated with them on placing shelters in wards.

“I’m not trying to make this an issue of race,” Black Caucus Chairman Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th, said during the March City Council meeting. “Unfortunately though, it is.”

gpratt@chicagotribune.com

ayin@chicagotribune.com