Growing tensions over a proposed migrant encampment in Brighton Park were on display Tuesday when hundreds of residents packed the Thomas Kelly High School auditorium for a public meeting, where city officials contended with hundreds of neighborhood residents.
People banged on the school doors, demanding in vain to be let in as police turned away the overflow of arrivals, creating an unsettling backdrop to the emotionally charged forum inside.
“Mayor Johnson doesn’t care about us!” one man exclaimed during the public comment portion of the meeting, claiming that the city did not properly notify residents of its plans to construct the temporary encampment for approximately 2,000 migrants before work had begun on the site.
Less than a week before, Ald. Julia Ramirez (12th) was violently confronted by protestors near the northwest corner of W 38th Street and S California Avenue, the site of the proposed encampment. She joined members of Mayor Brandon Johnson’s staff and other city officials Tuesday in another effort to address impassioned public concerns.
“Our goal is to make sure people are not living on the street,” said Beatriz Ponce de León, Deputy Mayor for Immigrant, Migrant and Refugee Rights, at the meeting.
Since August 2022, over 19,000 migrants – many of them seeking asylum – have been transported by bus or airplane from southern border states to Chicago, putting a significant strain on the city’s public resources as it attempts to house and care for them. According to Ponce de León, 345 buses have arrived in the city within the past six months. As many as 4,000 individuals and families are currently sleeping on the floors of the city’s police stations, airports, and in outdoor spaces.
To alleviate this growing humanitarian crisis, the Johnson administration has entered into a contract with GardaWorld Federal Services to set up temporary, prefabricated structures to house migrants at sites throughout Chicago. The city is currently identifying areas to set up these shelters, with the privately owned, empty property at 38th and California being one of them.
According to Deputy Mayor of Infrastructure and Services Lori Lypson, the GardaWorld shelters are insulated and meet American Red Cross standards for structures used in disaster and other emergency conditions. Each encampment will also be staffed by unarmed security.
Despite the city’s assurances, many residents in attendance questioned the decision to place migrants in tent shelters as outdoor temperatures begin to drop.
“It’s not humane to have people in cold conditions, especially in Chicago, to have them outside in tents,” said Anthony Montoya, a life-long Brighton Park resident. “I think they deserve more than this.”
Others in the crowd objected to what they viewed as the city beginning work on the Brighton Park property without the consent of residents. Boos and chants of “Send them back!” were audible at many points during the meeting, often forcing city officials to speak over several loud interruptions.
Neighbors for Environmental Justice, or N4EJ, a McKinley Park-based non-profit, distributed leaflets advocating for alternative solutions to the prefabricated encampments, claiming that the 38th and California site is unsafe for people to live in. The flyers challenged the city to “stop focusing on how to contain people” and identify “a clear process” for connecting newcomers with the community. The group is pushing for a smoother enrollment of migrant children in Chicago Public Schools.
“I have students in my classroom who are refugees. I see a bright future for them,” said Arturo Jurado, a math teacher at Kelly High School, during the public comment.
But constant protests at the site over the past week display signs such as one opposing the encampment that states, “We are uneasy and scared.”
Johnson included $150 million in his budget proposal to address the migrant crisis, a figure that even his aides have admitted will not cover the costs needed to house migrants in 2024. Instead, the city is looking to the state and federal governments to pitch in additional funding to close the gap. Ponce de León ended her remarks with a call to action for city residents.
“Our federal government should be coordinating this settlement. We need to hear your voices at the federal level,” Ponce de León said.
The city appears poised to establish a migrant encampment in Brighton Park. Once all remaining environmental assessments of the property have been completed, the city will officially place an order with the contractor to build out the camp.
It remains unclear how many more prefabricated migrant shelters the city plans to order or where they will be placed.
Dominic Faria is a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s a former editor at the University of California, Davis student newspaper, The California Aggie. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has a particular passion for both sports and politics.
IL Latino News partners with Medill School of Journalism in providing students mentoring and real work experiences.