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A woman continues to voice her opinion after her mic was turned off for running over time during a community meeting held at Kelly High School Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023.

A woman continues to voice her opinion after her mic was turned off for running over time during a community meeting held at Kelly High School Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. Hundreds turned out for the meeting, which was held over the city’s plan to turn a lot at West 38th Street and South California Avenue in the Brighton Park Neighborhood into a winterized camp for asylum seekers.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

‘Welcoming spirit’ vs. worries over safety: Brighton Park residents at odds over migrant tent plan

A tense community meeting Tuesday night in Brighton Park illustrated the divide between residents on the city’s controversial plan to turn a site in the Southwest Side neighborhood into a tent shelter for asylum seekers.

Raucous cheers and boos frequently erupted among the hundreds gathered at the auditorium of Kelly High School, 4136 S. California, whenever someone spoke for or against the proposal.

“Let’s fix our problems first,” one immigrant resident told officials.

“We have to have kindness, peace and not be against each other,” countered another resident.

Officials at the meeting didn’t provide an expected move-in date for the new arrivals, saying the site at 38th and California is still undergoing an environmental assessment to determine its viability.

If the 11-acre site is deemed suitable, it will take “several days” to bring in supplies, erect the tents and test them before welcoming migrants, according to a city handout given to attendees.

Beatriz Ponce de Leon, deputy mayor for immigrant, migrant and refugee rights, explained the camp is not a long-term solution but rather a response to the steady stream of migrants who have arrived in Chicago since August 2022.

Nearly 20,000 have arrived in Chicago in that span. With not enough beds to go around, about 4,000 have been sleeping at O’Hare airport, in police stations and outdoors as they wait placement, she said.

“It is evident that it is not a safe place or humane way for people to live,” Ponce de Leon said. “Our No. 1 priority right now, especially as winter is upon us, is to make sure that those 4,000 people have a place to be.”

The camp is expected to initially host 500 migrants, composed of families with children, and eventually up to 2,000, de Leon said, adding the tents will be heated and air conditioned, and the site will be monitored by unarmed security. The camp will also feature dining halls, temperature controlled restrooms and shower facilities.

But many residents of the neighborhood, which is predominantly Latino but has a growing Asian population, attending the meeting expressed concerns that the number of asylum seekers in the camp would lead to safety risks. They loudly criticized the city for starting work on the site before getting community input.

“We have concerns about our students, our children, who walk down the street every day. How are we ensuring their safety?” said Michael, a six-year resident of Brighton Park, during public comment. “To commence construction without a word to us, that is not an oversight, it’s disrespect.”

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office confirmed the city’s intention to turn the site into a migrant shelter on Monday after city crews were spotted near the property.

Local Ald. Julia Ramirez (12th) was accused by protesters of backing the plan without community input. She denied those accusations after being battered by protesters during a contentious demonstration last week.

“I was not aware that the city trucks had been working on the lot after the fact. I did not have aldermanic prerogative in this decision,” Ramirez reiterated during Tuesday night’s meeting. “I was not asked or given a vote.”

Ramirez added that since the city “is asking a lot” of Brighton Park, she has asked for more resources for the neighborhood.

Julie Gamez, 60, a 16-year resident of Brighton Park, echoed the need for more resources, specifically asking for the city to focus on public safety before taking on the migrant crisis.

“We all need to have security here, and there is none. I’m out at 4 in the morning, and I don’t see a single patrol car. There have been robberies, there’s been beatings, shootings,” Gamez said. “I’m an immigrant, and I know that we need to help them, but there has to be another place for them to go. Let’s fix our problems first.”

But Gamez’ neighbor and good friend Esther Cadena, 92, said the neighborhood should welcome the new arrivals with an open heart.

“We have to have kindness, peace and not be against each other, because we are America, and we want to be treated good,” said Cadena, who has lived in Brighton Park for 35 years.

Arturo Jurado, a math teacher at Kelly High School, said his immigrant family arrived in Chicago in 1995 when he was a child and were welcomed with open arms by the neighborhood.

“I hope this neighborhood can find in their heart what I witnessed as a child, which is a welcoming spirit,” Jurado said.

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