Migrants would move from police stations to big tents in ‘winterized base camps’ under Chicago mayor’s new plan

Mayor Brandon Johnson did not rule out budget cuts or tax increases to pay for a burgeoning humanitarian crisis already costing Chicago upward of $30 million a month.

SHARE Migrants would move from police stations to big tents in ‘winterized base camps’ under Chicago mayor’s new plan
El concejal Byron Sigcho-López (25º) y el alcalde Brandon Johnson se reúnen con los migrantes alojados en una comisaría en mayo.

From left, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) and Mayor Brandon Johnson meet migrants staying at the Near West Police District station in May. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Nearly 1,600 asylum-seekers would be moved out of Chicago police stations “before the weather begins to shift and change” and into “winterized base camps” equipped with massive tents, under a plan unveiled Thursday by Mayor Brandon Johnson.

Johnson refused to say where the tent cities would be built, only that his administration has identified suitable locations across the city. The tent structures he envisions could hold up to 1,000 migrants, though he added that 500 or so was an “ideal scenario.”

During a short interview with the Sun-Times, the mayor offered no specifics on cost or funding. Instead, he described the broad outlines of a plan that includes “base camps” that would provide meals and recreational and educational programming supplied by Chicagoans as a way to reduce what he called the “exorbitant” costs now being paid to a private staffing agency.

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The mayor also described, without much detail, a “comprehensive and coordinated safety plan at every single shelter” — including the 16-and-counting facilities created by the city to house the 13,500 migrants already here. More busloads have been arriving daily.

Johnson promised an “additional agency to expedite resettlement” while continuing to “partner with the state and county to create more welcoming spaces to take the burden off” Chicago.

Pressed repeatedly, Johnson did not rule out budget cuts or tax increases — or both — to pay for a burgeoning humanitarian crisis already costing Chicago upward of $30 million per month.

The city will have to make “sacrifices,” he said, adding that the cost of not making those sacrifices would be far greater.

“These families are coming to the city of Chicago … If we do not create an infrastructure where we’re able to support, and quite frankly, contain these individuals who have experienced a great deal of harm, individuals who are desperate — if we do not provide support for these individuals and these families, that type of desperation will lead to chaos,” Johnson said.

“There is a sacrifice that is going to be required in this moment … The sacrifices that we are prepared to make in order to ensure that this city is not chaotic and it is not riddled with desperate people,” the mayor added. “And I’m confident that we can do both. That we can make sure that we invest in people who have been marginalized in this city under previous administrations while also staying true to our values.”

City Council members have decried what they described as criminal activity that included drinking, sex trafficking, drug-dealing, narcotics use and gang recruitment outside Chicago’s migrant shelters.

“I’m glad you raised that,” Johnson told the Sun-Times. “You’re making my point … Anything absent the type of investments that I am prepared to make and the sacrifices that I am gonna ask the city of Chicago to stand alongside me — anything short of that is going to cause and create that much more damage and chaos.”

Senior mayoral adviser Jason Lee was even more pointed in his warning about the risks to Chicagoans if bold solutions aren’t undertaken.

“This population is very vulnerable. They don’t necessarily speak the language. They don’t know all the ins-and-outs, and they can be subject to exploitation. They can be recruited into criminal enterprise,” Lee said.

“They can be doing whatever they have to do to survive, which would be understandable,” Lee added, “but also could lead to significant consequences for the people of the city.”

Two weeks after taking office, Johnson persuaded a divided City Council to slap a $51 million Band-Aid on Chicago’s burgeoning migrant crisis after a cathartic debate that reduced one alderperson to tears. The 34-13 vote provided only enough funding to carry Chicago through June 30.

Since then, the parade of buses has increased exponentially. The faster the city opens shelters, the quicker they fill up.

A top mayoral aide warned last month that Chicago could experience a fivefold increase in arriving migrants — up to 10 busloads a day — sent here by Republican governors trying to embarrass and strain Democratic sanctuary cities in the run-up to the 2024 Democratic national convention.

Johnson wholeheartedly agreed — but strongly disagreed with his New York City counterpart Eric Adams, who warned this week that the 110,000 migrants who have descended on that city at a cost of $1.5 billion and counting would “destroy New York City. … The city we knew, we’re about to lose.”

“I’m not going to accept the notion that the city of Chicago is going to be destroyed,” Johnson said. “We are a city of big shoulders. We’ve been through difficult moments and challenges before. And we’re gonna get to the other side of this. I’m confident of that … I was elected to lead. This is not a challenge that will overwhelm us.”

cots tent migrant shelter New York City Queens

New York City already has erected large tents to serve as migrant shelters. This tent filled with cots is in the parking lot of a psychiatric hospital, and will house adult men who are asylum-seekers. The encampment will offer services including meals and medical care, officials said.

Associated Press

The mayor’s promise to get migrants out of Chicago police stations before the weather turns was music to the ears of Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara.

“The longer you have a situation like that, you’re going to have personalities and tempers flaring with the migrants themselves. And the police are gonna be called in to deal with them, unfortunately,” Catanzara said.

“The desk in the station used to be a spot where officers would ... take a break, come in off the street and just kind of socially interact with other officers. [But] nobody wants to be in a station longer than they have to at this point,” Catanzara added. “It’s an overcrowding situation. I don’t know why the Department of Buildings, the Fire Department — nobody is insisting on doing anything about it. Apparently, they have their marching orders to let it go.”

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), who chairs the City Council Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, applauded the mayor for his creativity. But Vasquez said he was concerned about tents being able to withstand what could be a “very harsh” Chicago winter.

“We understand that police stations are not a place for anybody to live or sleep in. But tents? I have to see more detail to know if that’s a better solution ... It’s Chicago winter. Having people out there in a tent is a concern for anyone,” Vasquez said.

“It shows how challenging things are when we’re not having enough support from the state and federal government,” Vasquez added. “If we don’t have work authorizations moving forward and more funding to actually acquire or rent property, you end up with tents in the middle of a Chicago winter, which I don’t think anyone wants to see.”

Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd) said it was a good idea to move migrants from police stations, even if it is into tents — for now.

“I cannot support 3-year-old children sleeping on police station floors. This situation is untenable,” Rodriguez said. “I think the mayor would agree and state that this [tent concept] is not ideal. But if there’s a dignified way to house them temporarily [somewhere else], I’m supportive of that.”

Johnson refused to say how many tent cities he envisioned.

“What has been proven to be most effective — particularly cost-effective — are locations that house and shelter more people, particularly places in locations that house 500 or more individuals. Those are the ideal scenarios,” he said.

“These base camps can get up to 1,000. They have the ability and capacity in a secure way to hold as many as necessary,” Johnson added.

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