CHICAGO — As the city works to keep up with new migrant arrivals, a record number of buses in a two-day period, arrived in Chicago over the weekend.
Between Saturday and Sunday, the city received 12 total buses, including seven on Sunday alone.
“On top of the 12, we had 16 buses earlier in the week, so a total of 28 buses and 24 flights at O’Hare because we get two flights from San Antonio daily,” said Cristina Pacione-Zayas, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first deputy chief of staff.
“As you can tell, there is a significant increase, and we actually got word that the border was not going to be closed on Sunday and that’s why we were going to have some additional buses coming,” Pacione-Zayas said. “This is definitely a different phase, a different level of intensity with respect to the frequency of buses and how many buses are coming in multiples, coupled with the flights.”
New data shows since the end of Aug. 2022, more than 15,000 migrants have arrived in the city. As of Monday, 8,936 migrants remained in city shelters, while another 2,011 migrants awaited placement.
Those awaiting placement include 1,635 migrants at Chicago Police Department Districts, 360 at O’Hare International Airport, and another 16 migrants at Midway International Airport.
Pacione-Zayas said there are two things, in particular, the city doesn’t have control over: the number of buses and the frequency they are coming to the city and what the federal government decides to do to manage the flow.
“All we can do is respond, receive, and do our best to meet the moment,” Pacione-Zayas said.
Since Aug. 2022, city officials said 280 buses have arrived in Chicago, including 59 this month alone. Buses have come from cities in Texas, including Del Rio/Eagle Pass, El Paso, Laredo, Brownsville and McAllen, while several others have arrived from Denver, Colorado.
“We are trying to stand up as many brick-and-mortar congregate shelters as possible,” Pacione-Zayas said. “We were able to bring three online and we have plans for a few more and we are also working out the details for the prefabricated structures so we can be successful in moving people out of police stations and onto a path of self-sufficiency.”
As of Monday, numbers showed the most overwhelmed police districts included the 9th District where 199 migrants are staying, the 12th District where 144 migrants are staying, and the 1st District where 112 migrants are staying.
“It’s always been a goal to transition out of the police stations. We know that the structures that police stations occupy are not designed to be de-facto public housing, nor are our law enforcement officers trained in being able to navigate this additional hat and it interferes with what they are charged with doing, which is enforcing the law and solving crime,” Pacione-Zayas said.
She said the city has seen situations where children have been left alone as parents have gone to work and there are concerns for safety, especially with young children sleeping on the ground.
Pacione-Zayas admits it hasn’t been easy trying to keep up with opening shelters with enough beds, while also tending to the continuation of incoming buses.
“It just presents a host of challenges that we knew from the beginning,” Pacione-Zayas said. “Actually, when we first started, there were almost 1,000 in police stations and we were able to transition a significant number out. There were under 400 and then we had another, kind of, increase in all of these buses coming as well as the airplanes.”
While the police districts are supposed to be a temporary shelter as migrants await placement at city shelters, police sources and volunteers tell WGN-TV, some people have called it their home for months, sleeping on mattresses, blankets, and even tents outside of the lobbies.
“As far as the tents outside, those are being provided by volunteers, that is not being provided by the city. I also just want to recognize the herculean effort of our mutual aid groups and volunteers. Without them, we would be in a much worse scenario. They literally have stood in the gap and continue to do so, and we are just eternally grateful for their support and collaboration,” Pacione-Zayas said.
At several community meetings, tempers have flared as residents expressed concern and anger over the lack of notification when a new shelter opens. City leaders said they appreciate and understand that frustration and feeling of being caught off guard, because they do as well.
“For only one-third of our buses, we receive a manifest, therefore there’s no ability to plan. There’s no understanding of what the demographics are, the composition of the folks on the bus, for us to then be able to get in front of it,” Pacione-Zayas said.
Recently, the city quietly signed a $29 million contract with GardaWorld to erect, staff, and operate tent cities to accommodate the influx of migrants. Each tent must be able to house 250-1,400 people, WGN Investigates learned.
It also is required to provide migrants with bedding, laundry, showers, three meals a day and security. While the tent city contract also calls for several other stipulations and benefits, some alderpersons and volunteers have expressed concerns over the plans.
“We will stand in our values to make sure the safety, security and holistic well-being of those who are coming to our city and if they are placed in a base camp, they will have that support,” Pacione-Zayas said. “There’s this perception it’s going to just be subpar in terms of the resources, in terms of the services, and in terms of the support and well-being.”
Pacione-Zayas said the structures are sophisticated with HVAC systems, steel walls and temperature control. She said they will also work with volunteers, research partners, community-based partners and mutual aid volunteers to make sure they are showing up for migrants in a humane way.
“We did our due diligence in terms of speaking with the state about concerns that we had heard,” Pacione-Zayas said. “They explained to us, they have an agreement with them that are anchored in our values, that ensure holistic well-being, they’ve shared them with us. We are working on now adapting them to our values and expectations in the city.”
Pacione-Zayas said the city piggybacked off the state’s contract so they wouldn’t have to go through the six to 18-month contracting process and lose time, have more people on the streets, and packing police stations.
“It’s not like a camping tent with a heater,” Pacione-Zayas said. “All of the services and support we are offering in our congregate shelter will also happen in these base camps.”
While the company tasked with building and operating Chicago’s tent cities was reportedly said to have a contract with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration to re-locate migrants out of state, the company issued a press release on Sept. 22, saying its contract with the Florida Division of Emergency Management remains inactivated and it was in no way “involved with transportation of vulnerable populations in the state.”
As the city works to address the ongoing situation, 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale and 41st Ward Ald. Anthony Napolitano want voters to decide whether they would like to see more restrictions in place for migrants and refugees coming to the city.
“I think we need to put the question to the people of Chicago; the taxpayers, the people that vote and let them decide,” Beale said.
A resolution, which will be put forth in front of the full city council at the meeting next week, could add a referendum to the primary ballot in March 2024, giving voters the option to decide whether they would like Chicago to remain a sanctuary city.
“Nobody has ever asked true taxpayers of the City of Chicago if they want it to be a sanctuary city, it was just something that politicians did,” Beale said.
Right now, Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance means the city won’t ask about immigration status, share it with authorities, or deny a person city services. It also states the city chooses not to partner with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport undocumented individuals.
Beale said the ordinance they’re planning to put in front of the city council proposes restrictions that would change parts of the current law.
“Basically saying, look, before any shelter, tent city, or money is being spent in any particular ward, the alderman have to be in support of it,” Beale said.
He said a handful of others have signed on to the proposed ordinance and recognizes he will likely receive pushback on the proposal.
“We have a cross-section of the city that have already signed on to this ordinance, and like with anything else, you’re going to have pushback, but at the same time, I think the people of Chicago are ready to push back,” Beale said. “We have to have the checks and balances. We have to have it, and if we don’t have it, then we’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars.”
“We’re spending over $500 million a year on people who are coming to this city and people here are already struggling,” Beale said.
According to Pacione-Zayas, they are exploring cost-saving measures. One of those, includes a cost for proposals to replace their contractual staffing with community-based providers and social services agencies. She said they are paying a higher premium with a contractual firm, which the administration inherited, and is recruiting from outside of Chicago and beyond, having to pay for people’s hotels, transportation, and meals.
“We want to put Chicagoans to work,” Pacione-Zayas. “Next week we are going to have an RFP out for meal services so that we can assure that local restaurants and catering companies have an opportunity as well to play a role in this process.”
Pacione-Zayas also said they are planning a trip to the border to speak with non-government organizations and local governments about tighter coordination moving forward.
“The reality is that Chicago winters are incredibly acute and present additional challenges and I think people need to be fully aware of that, and that’s why the coordination needs to be tighter, and it cannot just be recklessly sending buses without any type of alignment with how we are building out shelters as well as base camps,” Pacione-Zayas said.
In the meantime, they’re focusing on strategies to expand the city’s resettlement capacity, looking to more case managers who can help.
“This is an opportunity for our city to not just stand in its values, but to also support people in their journey for self-sufficiency, self-determination, and self-actualization,” Pacione-Zayas said.