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Ald. Mike Rodriguez, 22nd Ward, walks a mother and her four kids

Ald. Mike Rodriguez, 22nd Ward, walks a mother and her four kids who have recently arrived to Chicago to Zapata Academy, where the kids will enroll in school.

Tessa Weinberg

A plan to spend $51 million to aid migrants rekindles a heated debate in a new Chicago City Council

On Monday morning small clusters of kids new to Chicago fanned out in all directions from Piotrowski Park in the Little Village neighborhood.

A boy fiddled with his yellow Transformer action figure as Ald. Mike Rodriguez, 22nd Ward, showed the boy’s mother and three siblings the short walk from the park gymnasium where migrant families have been staying to Zapata Academy, where they would enroll in school.

With Chicago’s school year ending in two weeks, the kids were still filled with first-day-of-school jitters and nerves since they don’t know English.

“Even though they don’t know which way to walk, they’re in a new country, they’re sleeping in a gymnasium — they’re excited about normal things,” Rodriguez said of the children, noting they’ll provide a small but needed boost to under-enrolled schools in the neighborhood. “They’re our kids. They’re us.”

Enrolling children in Chicago’s schools is just one hallmark in what has been a challenging and traumatic situation for thousands of migrant families, and for city officials managing the crisis.

The city’s shelter system is “overcapacity” and a lack of space has forced recent arrivals to take refuge on the floors of police station lobbies and park field houses as the city scrambles to secure more funds and space. As of Monday, Chicago has taken in 9,942 migrants since last August.

Having received only a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funding requests since last year, the City Council is expected to vote Wednesday on using $51 million set aside for “unanticipated emergencies.” If approved, the funding would go toward staffing for seven city shelters, three so-called “respite centers,” meals, legal services and transportation for migrants.

The council is expected to approve the $51 million in funding, which city officials estimated will only last only through the end of June. But using city resources for incoming migrants has rekindled a heated and contentious debate in the city’s legislative body.

“I cannot support and take the oxygen mask off my community to add it somewhere else,” said Ald. David Moore, 17th Ward, as he cast one of three “no” votes earlier this month on advancing the funding proposal out of a City Council committee.

Migrants walk with aldermen to school

Ald. Mike Rodriguez, 22nd Ward, walks with a family of migrants to Zapata Academy, where the kids will enroll in school. Rodriguez supports spending millions to aid the migrants.

Mariah Woelfel

Mayor Brandon Johnson has tried to address the tension head on, in his inauguration speech and at one of his first news conferences as mayor.

“Look, it’s no secret that the Black community in this city has suffered under austerity budgets that have caused true economic despair. And we are in a position now to bring communities together,” Johnson said after visiting Piotrowski Park’s respite center last week on his second day in office. “And we have to do both.”

Johnson will likely have to address the issue again at his first City Council meeting Wednesday, as he navigates one of his first immediate challenges as mayor.

Alderman wants more investment in his own neighborhood

Moore has historically used his vote in City Council as a trading chip in pursuit of funding for his ward projects. Standing at Ogden Park in his South Side ward on Monday, he showed off a brand new football field he said he successfully negotiated funding for under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Moore can’t remember whether it was his support for the Lincoln Yards megadevelopment or an annual budget proposal, but he said Emanuel needed his support and Moore had a price.

“He kept his word and I kept mine,” Moore said. “And that’s part of communication. You don’t get everything you want. But you got to compromise.”

Across the parking lot from the football field with lights and a scoreboard sits Moore’s next priority project — a downtrodden field house with boarded-up roof panels in need of repair.

“It looks like a prison,” Moore exclaimed.

Ald. David Moore

Ald. David Moore stands outside the fieldhouse at Ogden Park in the 17th Ward.

Mariah Woelfel

To him, the field house is a physical manifestation of disinvestment his ward and surrounding communities have experienced for decades. He’s cited its disrepair as his reason for his opposition to the $51 million to support migrants.

Moore questioned the city’s explanation that the $51 million had been set aside for “unanticipated emergencies.”

“What are the guidelines for what determines what is an emergency? … This is an emergency to get this park done and if that’s not an emergency — keeping our babies safe — then I don’t know what is,” Moore said.

The city’s budget office did not respond to questions about how the city decides when to use surplus funds for emergency use.

But Moore acknowledged a humanitarian crisis is unfolding just down the street where dozens of migrants sleep on air mattresses and cots in the lobby of the Englewood police station. The station has been taking in “domestic” unhoused residents, too: “[If] we’re gonna open for one we’re gonna open for all,” an officer told Moore.

After the walk through, Moore reflected on the dire straits newcomers face: “I just see innocent people in a bad situation based on bad policies. And it’s not their fault.” But he reiterated it’s a “federal issue.” Moore’s opposition will likely not make a dent in Wednesday’s scheduled City Council vote — funding is expected to pass despite his concerns. But he said he’d do the same even if his vote was decisive.

“If I had the determining vote on this issue, they would have to give me $10 million for Ogden Park. Hands down, they have to give me $10 million to rebuild that field house. That’s what will get my vote,” Moore said.

He shrugged off the idea of opening a shelter in his ward, particularly at Ogden Park, saying it would take space away from neighborhood kids at the start of summer, when violence tends to increase and parks programming becomes a vital violence prevention tool.

Other neighborhoods have rejected such shelters, with South Shore residents filing a lawsuit to block a former high school from being used to house asylum seekers.

10th District Police Station

The 10th District Police Station in North Lawndale where asylum seekers, mostly single men, are temporarily staying as the city works to find more shelter space.

Tessa Weinberg

Groups come together to aid migrants

As of Monday, there were 4,129 asylum seekers in Chicago’s shelters, a city spokesman said. More than 700 asylum seekers in police stations await more stable placements, and city officials faced mixed support from residents during a community meeting Tuesday night over its plans to house hundreds of asylum seekers at Wilbur Wright College on the Northwest Side, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Meanwhile, a coalition of nonprofit organizations, mutual aid groups and volunteers have coalesced to aid migrants in Little Village.

In the basement of the New Life Community Church in Little Village, three case managers help migrants sign up for public benefits, meals are stacked on a table and a pile of donated clothes is up for grabs.

The room was once used for aerobics classes, but it was transformed about a month ago to serve as a welcoming center that now sees between 40 to 60 people a day, said Marissa Arrez, the assistant to the CEO for Rincon Family Services, a nonprofit working to provide meals and services to migrants across police stations.

The block is a community hub of sorts. New Life added church services in Qʼeqchiʼ, a Mayan language, for recent Guatemalan migrants, and the faith-based nonprofit operates a food pantry across the street. Migrants who are staying in police stations can shower in big converted vans parked outside. And the buzz of a razor fills the air as a man gets a haircut on the sidewalk.

“We have communities that have been disinvested in for generations. And I get it when someone feels a certain way about investments to people that we other-ise,” said Rodriguez, who is optimistic the $51 million in aid will pass. “But the fact is, we’re all in this together. And we need to live in a spirit of abundance, where we have what we need to take care of everyone.”

Tessa Weinberg and Mariah Woelfel cover Chicago city government and politics at WBEZ.

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