Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration announced Tuesday it will not move forward with constructing a base camp to house migrants in the Brighton Park neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side. The state says the land does not meet environmental safety standards after the city said the site was safe for temporary residential use. But Chicago blames the state for not raising concerns sooner.
The decision comes as the city is trying to find solutions to the migrant crisis in Chicago, especially as winter arrives.
WBEZ city government and politics reporter Tessa Weinberg spoke with Melba Lara about the issues Tuesday afternoon.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What does the state’s decision mean for migrant sites in Chicago?
A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Human Services says a contractor is actually going to deconstruct and vacate the Brighton Park site, and now they’re looking for other locations. They’ve asked the city to identify what those sites could be, along with the Archdiocese of Chicago. The state was also helping the city set up a brick-and-mortar shelter at a former CVS in Little Village, so they’re going to speed up that location’s opening.
But the state’s decision has really opened up this new can of worms with Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration. Johnson released a statement this afternoon casting some of the blame on the state, and the city says the state told a private contractor to move forward on the construction for the base camp. City officials also say the state didn’t raise these concerns earlier.
What’s wrong with the Brighton Park site?
This site has a history of industrial use, so there were concerns about people living there for a short period of time. The city hired an outside consultant to do an independent environmental review. That review showed mercury and other contaminants were present in the soil. To address that issue, the city said they added a 6-inch layer of stone to cover the land — which Chicago officials say made the land suitable for temporary residential use. But the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found the opposite when reviewing the consultant’s report.
How are residents reacting to the news?
Ald. Julia Ramirez, 12th Ward, is happy to see the state take these safety concerns seriously, saying it validates the concerns residents and environmental advocates raised about the site’s history. But she says the environmental study should have been prioritized before construction even started.
Ramirez says she wants her ward to still be a welcoming one for asylum-seekers and that she’s looking forward to having conversations about how to safely shelter migrants going forward.
What does this disagreement mean for Johnson and Pritzker’s relationship?
We’ve got dueling narratives between the state and the city over who did what and why this plan fell apart, and it really underscores the tension that’s been building as the city asked the state for more money while the state has been critical of the city’s slow pace at managing the migrant crisis. So getting this site shut down in the middle of construction, as winter is coming, is another example of the disconnect between Johnson’s administration and the governor’s.
Tessa Weinberg covers city government and politics for WBEZ. Follow @tessa_weinberg.