Most funding OK’d by City Council for migrant crisis to be spent on personnel

Cristina Pacione-Zayas, first deputy chief of staff for Mayor Brandon Johnson, told a City Council committee that the administration wants to build the infrastructure for a welcoming city for immigrants.

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Asylum seekers who are moving from the shelter at High Ridge YMCA on June 13, 2023, step out of buses outside Richard J. Daley College in the West Lawn neighborhood, where they will be staying temporarily.

Asylum seekers who are moving from the shelter at High Ridge YMCA on June 13, 2023, step out of buses outside Richard J. Daley College in the West Lawn neighborhood, where they will be staying temporarily.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file photo

Most of the $51 million approved by the City Council during a recent tense meeting will go toward paying a national staffing firm that is providing around-the-clock personnel at the makeshift shelters where recently arrived asylum seekers are seeking refuge, according to a city official.

Cristina Pacione-Zayas, first deputy chief of staff for Mayor Brandon Johnson, told the City Council’s Committee on Immigration and Refugee Rights during a Wednesday hearing that $47 million must be used to pay personnel, describing it as something they “inherited” that was not the best use of funds. Pacione-Zayas said the administration plans to seek request for proposals in July from Chicago-based organizations that could take over that work.

“I would like to see the dollars stay in Chicago because these are national firms, these are individuals that are coming from across the country for a period of time,” she said. “And once again, you know, there’s so many reasons why this is not justifiable.”

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The city also spent funds on leases for spaces, meals, facility maintenance, rental assistance and transportation, Pacione-Zayas said.

As of Wednesday, 4,988 immigrants were staying at 12 makeshift city-run shelters, and an additional 650 individuals remained at police stations waiting for a shelter bed, Pacione-Zayas said. About 14 buses coming from Texas had arrived within the past 10 days along with other individuals who found their way to Chicago to seek safety, she said.

In total, about 11,000 immigrants have come through Chicago as they seek asylum in the U.S. Some are finding housing elsewhere with 551 immigrants leaving the shelter system in the past two weeks, city officials said.

These updates about how the city is dealing with a humanitarian crisis that has unfolded in recent months was part of the first hearing led by 40th Ward Ald. Andre Vasquez, who now chairs the City Council Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights. The committee approved a resolution calling for monthly hearings to address the influx of asylum seekers.

While past meetings about the city’s response to the newly arrived migrants had been tense, Wednesday’s meeting took on a different tone.

“These are meetings that we’ve been asking for since last year in October, and so I’m grateful that you all are having this conversation,” said Ald. Jeanette Taylor, whose 20th Ward houses a makeshift shelter that was met with controversy.

Pacione-Zayas said the Johnson administration is looking at ways to build the infrastructure for a welcoming city, which includes looking at large city-owned properties that could become a shelter for at least 200 people.

“It’s one thing to say that we are a welcoming city, it’s a whole other thing to make investments in the infrastructure so we actually operationalize it,” she said.

The administration is leveraging their relationships with the county and state governments to increase funding for rental assistance, legal services, medical care and services for minors. They are also reaching out to philanthropic organizations to fill in the gaps for funding, she said.

A group was also formed to see how the city could work with volunteers who have provided everything from meals to mental health support to the newly arrived immigrants, Pacione-Zayas said.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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