CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared a state of emergency Tuesday in response to the thousands of migrants who have settled in the city, often under harsh living conditions, after crossing the U.S.’ southern border to seek asylum.
The executive order marked the outgoing administration’s grimmest prognosis yet on how Chicago’s most vulnerable new arrivals will fare as the city braces for the imminent end of its runway on financial assistance. It came nine months after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, began shepherding recent refugees from Central and South America onto one-way bus rides to Chicago, arguing that liberal “sanctuary cities” should readily take on more of the burden stemming from the border crisis.
More than 8,000 such migrants have since come to the city, in what Lightfoot on Tuesday again derided as a “political stunt” by Abbott while also conceding the buses will not stop.
“We’ve reached a breaking point in our response to our humanitarian crisis primarily manufactured by him for cynical political purposes,” Lightfoot said in a news conference, noting another 48 families were “shipped” from Texas that afternoon.
Signed with less than a week before Lightfoot is set to leave office, the emergency declaration frees the mayor’s administration to move around emergency funds and request the aid of the Illinois National Guard, though Lightfoot clarified the latter resort is not needed — for now.
But with pandemic-era federal border restrictions expiring this week, the worst is likely yet to come. That measure, known as Title 42, has allowed the immediate expulsion of asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border in order to curb the possible spread of disease, and its end could spell a new era of record migration within days.
Chicago is seeing its next big wave of new arrivals, however, despite the safety net that awaits them growing more frayed by the week. Families, including children and pregnant women, have resorted to sleeping on the floor of crowded police stations, while more than a hundred daily new arrivals add to the need at untenable rates.
A City Council committee hearing Tuesday did clear the way for $51 million in budget surpluses to be funneled toward migrant services, but that funding would barely tide over the city’s beleaguered support system until mid-June.
City Department of Family and Support Services Commissioner Brandie Knazze struck an urgent tone as she briefed aldermen ahead of the vote.
“There are no good options based on where we are, but we have to deal with the hand we have been dealt,” Knazze said. “There will need to be sacrifice in order to keep up with the inflow that we are receiving.”
The mayor once again called on Washington for support and said that only comprehensive immigration reform including expedited work permits can alleviate the national crisis.
Meanwhile, some aldermen bickered over whether it is fair to designate city funds toward new arrivals while existing residents suffer from homelessness and poverty. The discussion evoked the same tensions of last week’s community meeting in South Shore that devolved into shouting as neighbors expressed backlash against the Lightfoot administration’s intentions to locate a migrant shelter in their community.
The $51 million appropriation was opposed by South Side Ald. David Moore as well as Far Northwest Side Aldermen Nick Sposato and Anthony Napolitano.
“I’m never going to sell my constituents out when their needs are not met first in some form or fashion, and if that’s not happening I have an issue with that,” Moore said. “Until I see some movement on that, I cannot support and take the oxygen mask off of my community to add it somewhere else.”
Knazze said the city is currently operating seven shelters and three respite centers, with a total population of nearly 3,200 migrants. That surpasses the 3,000 residents of the city’s existing homeless shelters. About 100 to 150 new arrivals are coming via plane each day, mostly from Texas nonprofits, while another three to five buses bring another batch of migrants daily.
To sustain operations until the end of June, $112 million is needed, Knazze said. But the state and federal government have only fulfilled a fraction of the city’s grant requests on migrants, to the disappointment of multiple aldermen and city officials on Tuesday.
A spokesman for Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday reiterated that his administration has so far spent $260 million on providing shelter and care for asylum-seekers and recently directed another $10 million to the city on top of $20 million lawmakers allocated in January in response to a request from Lightfoot.
“Our administration has worked tirelessly in partnership with the city of Chicago to find temporary housing and provide resources for this ongoing response,” Pritzker spokesman Alex Gough said. “The state has successfully resettled 2,000 people and continues to aid the city in its resettlement efforts.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Friday that the city and state each were awarded $4.3 million from the agency’s emergency food and shelter program out of a pool of more than $330 million. The state had requested about $100 million.
Oscar Sánchez, a volunteer who galvanized his peers and other neighbors to advocate for the migrants, said some families have been at the police stations for nearly two weeks while awaiting room in a shelter and surviving on little food. Just last Monday night, a woman had a miscarriage, he said.
The group has called on the mayor and the governor to at least provide those staying at the stations with meals, medical attention, shower and transportation, and urgent health care. Lightfoot in turn has said that the administration is trying to move them out of the stations “as expeditiously as we possibly can.”
“That’s why we have been saying now for quite some time: we don’t have any more space,” Lightfoot said.