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Migrants in Chicago police stations

Yeraldin Centeno, 28, is a migrant from Venezuela who has been staying at the 8th District police station for six days with her kids in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood, Friday, May 5, 2023. Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared an emergency for migrants as a city council committee gave initial approval for $50 million in funds to help them.

Pat Nabong

Mayor Lori Lightfoot declares a state of emergency as the number of migrants coming to Chicago spikes

Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared a state of emergency Tuesday to marshal resources to support an influx of asylum seekers arriving in Chicago that is only expected to grow in the coming weeks.

“We shouldn’t have to come to this point, but here we are and even in my final days as mayor, it’s important for us to step up and respond to this burgeoning crisis,” Lightfoot said at a news conference Tuesday.

The declaration, though, does not mean an increase in funding for the crisis, according to the city’s budget director. And officials have been struggling to secure federal funding to pay for staffing, food and resources for thousands of migrants.

To that end, a committee of the City Council Tuesday approved using $51 million in emergency city funding to deal with the growing number of asylum seekers, after federal dollars recently allocated to Chicago was significantly less than requested. The emergency funding must still be approved by the full City Council.

City officials said they had previously anticipated a surge in new arrivals with the expiration this week of Title 42, a pandemic-era policy that allowed the federal government to expel migrants. But the influx came sooner than that, with the Lightfoot administration late last month warning aldermen the surge was already here. The number of migrants arriving each day has increased from 10 to up to 150 now.

“Things are starting to become quite tenuous, and we are at an unprecedented time in the operation,” Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services Commissioner Brandie Knazze told aldermen Tuesday.

The city is operating seven shelters and three “respite sites” for nearly 3,200 people, officials said Tuesday. Across police district stations, 450 migrants are awaiting a more permanent placement into one of those shelters. The city is looking for larger sites to house migrants.

The $51 million that got an initial greenlight Tuesday comes from a surplus of funds from the city’s 2021 budget that were set aside in case of an emergency, Budget Director Susie Park said. The city has so far allocated $15 million of its own funding toward the migrant crisis, she said. The additional funds will help officials make up for tens of millions of dollars denied by the state and federal government, Park said.

In all, Park said the city has requested around $110 million from the state and has been granted around $30 million. From the federal government, the city was awarded last week just $4.3 million after requesting $66.7 million, Park told aldermen. That’s in addition to $5.5 million received from the feds last year.

The funding approved Tuesday will run out by the end of June, Park said.

“The real conversation that’s going to happen in the next month or two is: where do we go from here? Like, what does this look like? Are we putting together a bunch of shelters and they’re all over the city, [or] are we trying to aggregate them into one location?” Park asked aldermen.

Park’s testimony underscores the complex crisis that will hit Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson immediately upon entering office next week. Johnson has vowed to increase collaboration with state, county and federal officials, but has not shared specific plans.

Tuesday’s meeting about whether to allocate funding echoed previous contentious City Council debates about how to support asylum seekers while also providing resources to Chicago’s most vulnerable residents. That debate has reached a fever pitch in recent months as aldermen have complained of a lack of coordination from the mayor’s office, which has been operating in “emergency mode” to open shelters in various communities.

Three aldermen — Anthony Napolitano, 41st Ward; David Moore, 17th Ward; and Nick Sposato, 38th Ward — voted against allocating the emergency funds.

“I’m never going to sell my constituents out,” Moore said, adding he hasn’t received funding for a fieldhouse project he wants to see completed in his ward. “And their needs are not met first in some form or fashion. If that’s not happening, I have an issue with that.”

Ald. Michael Rodriguez, 22nd Ward, urged his colleagues to view the problem as a humanitarian crisis. He joined the virtual committee meeting from his car as he prepared to view a potential “respite site” in his ward, he said.

“My community has raised their hand to support. I’ve heard loud and clear [from] many in my community who know what’s going on in these police stations. And I think we need to continue to articulate how this is a humanitarian crisis,” Rodriguez said.

“About a week ago, I visited the 10th district police station and met about four families, one of which had a mother who was eight months pregnant, sleeping on a floor … we need to step up as a city,” he said.

WBEZ’s Tessa Weinberg contributed to this report.

Mariah Woelfel covers city government and politics.

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