Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration is moving roughly 40 asylum-seekers out of a West Side police station after allegations surfaced that some Chicago Police officers committed sexual misconduct against at least one migrant who had been temporarily housed there.
“Our goal is to clear out [the 10th District] completely today,” Johnson’s First Deputy Chief of Staff Cristina Pacione-Zayas said in an interview with WBEZ Friday.
A city agency responsible for investigating police misconduct — the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, or COPA — announced Friday it is investigating some police officers for alleged sexual misconduct involving at least one migrant who had been housed at the Ogden District near Douglass Park. The Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs is also investigating. Allegations include a police officer impregnating a teenager.
Pacione-Zayas said the city is working to ensure the safety of an underage “individual, their family, and the folks that have been impacted” by alleged sexual misconduct. That includes “activating trauma-informed, intersectional services,” she said, including therapy and “reproductive health care and support.”
On Friday afternoon, about 40 Latin American migrants could be seen boarding two yellow school buses outside of the 10th District police station on the West Side. Children waved goodbye to the station as the bus pulled off.
The migrants had been sleeping on the floor of the lobby since arriving to the city a few weeks ago. They were the latest group of migrants housed at the busy police station as the city scrambled to find more permanent shelters. The buses were taking them to those shelters Friday.
A volunteer who is working with the migrants told WBEZ the migrants at the station had been surprised to hear about the alleged sexual misconduct by police officers, and that the parents had protected their children during their stay at the station.
The allegations, which were made public Thursday night, prompted swift calls from alderpersons and advocates for the city to move more quickly to transfer asylum seekers into shelters and stop using police stations as temporary housing.
“It needs to end and it needs to end immediately,” Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd Ward, told WBEZ on Friday.
Hopkins, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s hand-picked chair of the City Council Committee on Public Safety, said police station lobbies are inadequate places to house and support people “whose lives have been upended.”
“And that’s true regardless of whether these allegations turned out to be true or false,” Hopkins said, adding he has recommended to city officials that the city utilize National Guard armories to house asylum seekers who are arriving every week.
Pacione-Zayas said the Johnson administration has long wanted to stop using police stations as a temporary shelter, and the allegations that have surfaced have prompted even more urgency to stop the practice.
Meanwhile, the agency that oversees police misconduct said its investigation is moving forward.
“While COPA investigators are currently determining whether the facts and details of this allegation are substantiated, we want to assure the public that all allegations of this nature are of the highest priority and COPA will move swiftly to address any misconduct by those involved,” Ephraim Eaddy, COPA First Deputy Chief Administrator, said in a written statement.
COPA said the allegations may involve criminal action and require “cooperation” with Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office, which did not answer whether COPA or the Police Department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs have already referred the case for potential criminal charges.
For months, hundreds of migrants have been sleeping in police station lobbies as the city’s maxed out shelters struggle to support asylum-seekers being sent to Chicago after fleeing countries including Venezuela, Colombia, Honduras and more.
Karina Ayala-Bermejo, the president and CEO of the Instituto del Progreso Latino, said the “horrific” allegations underscore the urgency to expedite faster resettlement of asylum seekers and “moving as quickly as we can to shorten any time that an individual is at a police station for everyone’s safety.
“This is not what police stations are designed to do,” Ayala-Bermejo said of asylum seekers staying in police stations long term.
Marcela Rodriguez, the co-executive director Enlace Chicago, said in a statement the city’s strategy for housing asylum seekers needs to be reconsidered to ensure their safety. She called for “a swift, thorough, and transparent investigation.”
“Ironically, you would think that our police stations would be the safest place for these families, yet, we have these appalling allegations,” Rodriguez said.
The Instituto del Progreso Latino has provided legal aid to asylum seekers, and Ayala-Bermejo said new arrivals need access to legal resources and education around their rights “the moment they arrive.”
Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th Ward, is a former police officer who now chairs the council’s Committee on Police and Fire and said Friday the allegations raise a lot of issues.
“I think this investigation has opened a lot of eyes as to whether or not [migrants] are being treated fairly while they are at the police stations, but certainly, I think all police officers have been placed on notice that if there is inappropriate conduct going on, it needs to cease,” Taliaferro said.
As of Friday morning, 760 migrants are staying at Chicago police stations and 32 people are sleeping at O’Hare Airport but will be moved to police stations “when feasible,” the mayor’s office said. Roughly 5,100 migrants are residing temporarily in city shelters. Officials are planning to open five new shelters across the city with a combined capacity of nearly 2,500. City officials have pointed to additional rental assistance funding as a strategy to more quickly move asylum seekers out of city shelters and into more permanent housing.
But the wait for an apartment can be long and complicated by a dearth of affordable housing. Jose Muñoz, the co-chair of the Illinois Latino Agenda, said it will take more funding, staff and ultimately federal resources to be able to quickly speed up access to permanent housing.
“We need a federal response to be able to address this issue and it has to be echoed across all levels of government that are responding to this issue across the country,” Muñoz said. “It’s not a situation that’s unique to Chicago.”
U.S. Illinois Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Chicago, also condemned the alleged sexual misconduct by Chicago Police officers against migrants. Garcia said in a statement that the alleged behavior is “completely unacceptable.”
New Life Centers was preparing to order pizzas, put on a movie and open the doors of their church in Little Village to asylum-seekers at the 10th District police station before the news broke that migrants would be vacated, said Andre Gordillo, the director of New Life Centers’ southwest border arrival program.
When he thinks of how to avoid the situation moving forward, he knows organizations like his will have to quickly ramp up their work. But he also thinks of the states, like Texas, that have been sending people by the busload.
“They’re playing games with people’s lives,” Gordillo said.
A coalition of groups that focus on gender-based violence, including the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation and Mujeres Latinas En Accion, put out a joint statement calling the alleged acts “reprehensible.”
“It should be obvious to all that new-to-Chicago migrants temporarily housed in a police station are uniquely vulnerable to sexual exploitation,” the groups said in the statement. “We urge the Mayor’s Office and Chicago City Council to identify safe housing for migrants and prioritize safe and affordable housing for survivors across Chicago.”
WBEZ’s Patrick Smith contributed.
Mariah Woelfel and Tessa Weinberg cover city government and politics for WBEZ.