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Hundreds of asylum seekers take shelter inside a waiting area for shuttles near O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 2, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023.

Hundreds of asylum seekers take shelter inside a waiting area for shuttles near O’Hare International Airport, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023.

Pat Nabong

Illinois prepares to send $160 million for migrant support in Chicago

The state is committing an additional $160 million to assist Chicago in processing and housing the crush of asylum seekers who have been arriving this year in a move Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration characterized today as a “100% emergency response.”

The funding will supplement the $150 million that Mayor Brandon Johnson’s newly approved first city budget allotted for the migrant crisis emanating from the country’s southern border.

But that newly approved city spending plan was forecast to fall hundreds of millions of dollars short of fully covering expenses if the city continues to spend at the rate it has been, with the mayor hoping to make up the funding gap with help from the state, Cook County and federal government.

“I won’t stand up here and pretend any of this is easy,” the governor said. “We have a Congress abdicating its responsibility and border politicians using human beings as political pawns in their partisan games. Even with some help we’re getting from the federal government, we’re being forced to solve a federal sized problem at the state and local levels. Every day we contend with impossible choices about how to use already scarce resources.”

Under the state plan, $30 million would be specifically earmarked for an intake center to process new arrivals and establish where their final destination is. The Pritzker administration believes a more efficient intake system could lead to a 10% reduction in the number of asylum seekers needing shelter.

Another $65 million would go toward creating a winterized “soft shelter site” that could offer temporary housing to as many as 2,000 people for up to six months. That facility would be heated during winter months.

And $65 million more would go toward other associated costs, including case management, housing assistance and legal services.

State lawmakers didn’t explicitly authorize this level of funding to handle the flood of new migrants, but a Pritzker spokeswoman said the state has authority within the Illinois Department of Human Services budget to reallocate dollars.

If additional funding is needed, that could be dealt with when the General Assembly is next scheduled to return to Springfield in mid-January.

Prior to today’s $160 million commitment, the state has spent $478 million on the migrant crisis during the past fiscal year and the 2024 fiscal year, which ends next June, she said.

The governor made a moral case in making his closing pitch for the new state investment and likened the narrative that incoming migrants are facing in Chicago to that of his own ancestors, who came to America as they fled persecution in the late 1800s from what now is Ukraine.

“In hard moments, it might be easier to look away, to not make the tough calls, to ignore the humanitarian need right in front of us,” he said. “But when families come thousands of miles to seek refuge from terrible circumstances, who are we as human beings if we can’t provide at least temporary refuge?

“The state that took my ancestors in fleeing from pogroms in Ukraine will not allow asylum seekers to freeze to death on our doorsteps,” the governor continued. “This is where we are right now. They are cold so we will keep them warm. They are hungry so we will feed them. They need our help so we must do what we can.”

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics for WBEZ.

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