Top mayoral aide defends decision to budget $150 million for migrant crisis — not entire cost of ‘global, national, state crisis’

Budgeted amount only covers half of estimated cost, but top mayoral adviser says, ‘Tell me the alderman who is standing up saying, ‘I want the city [to] pay $400 million or $500 million.’

SHARE Top mayoral aide defends decision to budget $150 million for migrant crisis — not entire cost of ‘global, national, state crisis’
Two migrant families from Venezuela shelter at the Central District police station earlier this year. Hundreds remain at several police stations, while  there are 12,864 residents in 26 Chicago shelters, as of Nov. 28, 2023.

A top mayoral aide Thursday defended Mayor Brandon Johnson’s decision to budget $150 million for the migrant crisis in 2024, about half of what the city needs.

Natalie Garcia/For the Sun-Times

A top aide to Mayor Brandon Johnson on Thursday defended the decision to budget just $150 million for the migrant crisis in 2024, insisting there is “no appetite” among Chicago taxpayers or their alderpersons to shoulder the other half of the cost alone.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), Johnson’s City Council floor leader, acknowledged last week that $150 million will only cover six months of migrant spending, possibly requiring a midyear appropriation and a “difficult conversation” about how to pay for it.

On Thursday, senior mayoral adviser Jason Lee said the same alderpersons who complain that “hope is not a strategy” would be the first to “reject a larger appropriation.”

“Tell me the alderman who is standing up saying, ‘I want the city [to] pay $400 million or $500 million, and I would approve that budget.’ You can’t have it both ways,” Lee said.

“There is no appetite,” Lee said, “in the city of Chicago — nor should there be — to bear 100% of the cost for something that is a global, national, state crisis as well.”

Questions about Johnson’s decision to earmark just $150 million for the migrant crisis in 2024 — when the city is already spending more than $30 million a month — also dominated the first day of City Council hearings on the mayor’s $16.6 billion budget.

Alderpersons from across the city pressured the mayor’s budget team to identify “Plan B” after Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch slammed the door on more migrant funding during the fall veto session.

Lee nevertheless sees signs of hope.

He pointed to a “material decline” in the number of asylum-seekers declaring Chicago as their “intended destination” over the last two weeks — even though there’s been a 5.4% increase over the last week in the number of new arrivals.

Lee also cited President Joe Biden’s recent decisions to extend temporary protected status to 400,000 Venezuelans already in the U.S. and a decline in the number of border crossings since Biden ordered deportation flights of Venezuelans from the U.S. to resume.

“The federal government is making decisions that, a month ago, prognosticators never thought they would make,” Lee said.

“It’s not just Chicago. Massachusetts is at the breaking point. The city of New York is at the breaking point,” Lee said. “The federal government understands that ... they can’t afford to have chaos and confusion in major American cities.

“If the American people believe that the president of the United States has completely failed on border security or immigration ... ... and that is a story that is on the news every day in major media markets around the country, that puts significant, severe pressure on his ability to get reelected.”

Later this year, Lee said he expects Congress to pass government funding that includes the largest appropriation Chicago has seen yet for the migrant crisis.

In the meantime, it’s full speed ahead with Johnson’s plan to open tent cities he prefers to call “winterized base camps” to get 3,567 migrants off police station and airport floors.

Lee said a site at 38th Street and California Avenue in Brighton Park could be just one of several locations for the base camps. It hasn’t happened yet, only because there have been “land issues we needed to work through” and environmental remediation is required.

“Once you get that done, it’s a relatively quick mobilization of those pre-fab structures and you can move people into a fully formed, base camp community as soon as that is up. We’re moving very quickly,” Lee said.

At the Brighton Park site Thursday, protesters attacked 12th Ward Ald. Julia Ramirez and one of her aides.

Johnson’s decision to piggyback onto an existing state contract with GardaWorld has also drawn controversy. The security company has been accused of mistreating migrant children at the border and labor trafficking.

But Lee said concerns about the level of care that will be provided are misplaced. There are “thousands and thousands of these beds already operating” in New York City, he said.

“This concept has already been validated nationally, internationally,” said Lee. “The federal government is working with New York to help facilitate the establishment of these sites and has recommended this as a model for Chicago and encouraged us to continue along this path.”

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