Criticism over Chicago’s handling of an influx of migrants, and tensions between the state and city over the same issue, boiled over Friday at a five-hour-long, impassioned meeting of the council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
“I am saddened by the possibility that we are on the precipice of this administration moving forward with building military-grade tent base camps in our great city,” committee chairman Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward, said at the start of the meeting, but added “I don’t have the luxury to walk away because I disagree. We were elected to lead and we cannot do so by withdrawing to our separate corners.”
Center stage of the debate was the city’s recently inked, up-to-$29 million deal with private security firm GardaWorld to operate tent camps that could house between 250 to 1,400 people this winter. GardaWorld has been the subject of allegations of abusive labor practices and treatment of workers. A protest against the contract was planned for Friday afternoon.
There are currently 9,308 migrants housed in 21 city shelters, with 2,312 people sleeping in police stations and airports, according to the city.
While some Chicago alderpersons railed against Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration for its handling of the migrant crisis, others vehemently blamed the state of Illinois and federal government for a failure to open more shelters.
“It’s easy to stand 1,000 feet away and say ‘Hey, has the mayor looked underneath that stone and underneath that stone?’ when you’re not looking under any stones at all,” said Johnson’s floor leader and 35th Ward alderperson, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa.
On Thursday, Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker said he does not think a migrant base camp “is the only option,” prompting a back-and-forth on social media between Pritzker’s press secretary and Ramirez-Rosa.
Ramirez-Rosa doubled down on that argument in his public committee comments.
“I want to say that every other level of government, every other town, every other place that says that they too are a sanctuary, it’s time for you to step up to the same level as the city of Chicago. It’s time for JB Pritzker to live up to his promises and his words, and to stop lying,” Ramirez-Rosa said.
At issue, in part, is a dispute over the potential opening of a migrant shelter at a former CVS in Little Village. The state said the city hasn’t taken them up on an offer to open a shelter there, while the city said it immediately agreed but the process has been slow.
In response to a pointed question from Ramirez-Rosa, Johnson’s deputy chief of staff Cristina Pacione-Zayas said other than the CVS site, the state hasn’t offered to open a single shelter in Chicago, but noted that Illinois has been instrumental in other ways.
“Their role has been, since we took office, really about facilitating aspects of our sheltering system,” Pacione-Zayas noted. “I want to clarify that because I think if we didn’t have the support for case management, for housing case management, or the asylum-seeker emergency rental assistance program, we would be in far worse conditions.
“There have been a lot of planning meetings, a lot of projects and support that is offered there. And so while they’re not operating shelters, I do want to at least acknowledge what the state has contributed, and how that is a significant part of our operation.”
Between August 2022 when the first bus of migrants arrived and the end of 2023, the city is expected to spend a total of $345 million on housing and supporting migrants in Chicago, according to the presentation given Friday, once the base camps are built. That estimate is about $44 million more than the $301 million the city provided a few weeks ago.
Meanwhile, it is unclear how the private security firm GardaWorld will be held accountable for upholding quality-of-care standards in so-called base camps planned for migrants throughout Chicago.
“That’s precisely some of the discussions that we’re starting with [GardaWorld],” said Pacione-Zayas, as she reassured members the city will “operationalize our values” in all shelter settings.
“We have our own concerns,” Pacione-Zayas said. “They have agreed — Garda — to adopt what we develop, as well as come up with a cadence of reporting, to be able to see what progress is made, but ultimately for us to construct what is the definition for success.”
At a briefing with reporters the day prior, Pacione-Zayas said the mayor’s office would be the city agency tasked with holding GardaWorld accountable but did not elaborate on potential inspections or other forms of monitoring.
The contract with GardaWorld will not need City Council approval. It is mirrored after a “master contract” from the state that allows local municipalities to broker their own two-party agreements, avoiding red-tape and lengthy procurement processes — a red flag for some members.
“The research is already done for us. The company that the mayor signed this agreement with has been found to commit fraud in U.S. government contracts in terms of billing … We’ve got to be careful about these companies that we’re signing up with,” Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, said.
In response to the criticism, Pacione-Zayas committed to bringing GardaWorld officials to testify before the committee, as well as Catholic Charities, which has been working to help new arrivals move into more permanent housing.
Long-brewing tension over supporting migrants while the city grapples with existing unhoused residents was on display, too. At one point, the meeting was recessed due to disruptions by a group of public commentators upset over resources being doled out to help new arrivals.
Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th Ward, said she sympathized with that anger but urged Black and Latino residents to remember “white supremacy is our enemy.”
Still, she didn’t pull punches in criticizing the administration, urging officials to handle the crisis differently, including by refusing to accept new arrivals. Taylor warned officials they’re “going to start a race war.”
“We need to say we can’t take no more. Why won’t nobody say that out of their mouth out of this administration?” Taylor said.
In response to a question at a recent news conference about whether Chicago will remain a sanctuary city that takes in migrants, Johnson said “Yes … I don’t flinch.”
Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago politics for WBEZ.