Chicago Mayor warns city would be unable to support more migrants without federal help

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CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson joined Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday to reiterate a call for the federal government to expedite work permits for asylum-seekers in Chicago, adding urgency to his message by emphasizing the city would be unable to support ongoing additions to a migrant population that already totals more than 13,000 if changes aren’t made.

“Let me state this clearly: The city of Chicago cannot go on welcoming new arrivals safely and capably without significant support and immigration policy changes,” Johnson said during a news conference at the Illinois Restaurant Association’s Loop headquarters. “This change would be a commonsense measure that would provide greater opportunities for (new) arrivals, immigrants, to build their lives here in the state of Illinois.”

It was the first time since taking office in May that Johnson rang the alarm on the city potentially reaching the end of its runway for supporting asylum-seekers should the federal government not act soon.

On the eve of the anniversary of the initial migrants arriving in Chicago by bus from Texas, Pritzker and Johnson were joined by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and other Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation at an event organized by American Business Immigration Coalition Action to push for federal policy changes that would allow new arrivals to enter the workforce more quickly.

“Since the first bus arrived a year ago, it’s become increasingly clear that welcoming new arrivals is not a short-term crisis, but it’s a long-term dynamic,” Johnson said. “Speaking of long term, let us champion and enact solutions that will secure long-term success.”

Democratic officials and business leaders called on President Joe Biden’s administration to allow states to sponsor work permits for both recently arrived migrants and immigrants who entered the country without legal permission to work in industries facing labor shortages, such as the hospitality, manufacturing, construction and health care sectors.

Echoing a letter Johnson and Pritzker sent Monday to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the officials asked the Biden administration to use a “significant public benefit” designation to speed up the process of authorizing migrants to work and become less reliant on government aid.

The letter said Illinois and Chicago had spent and obligated $250 million to help the more than 13,000 asylum-seekers who have come to Chicago from the U.S.-Mexico border in the past year. The process for those migrants to apply for work authorization can take anywhere from several months to well over a year, according to experts who spoke to the Tribune in July.

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the letter, though Johnson told reporters he and Mayorkas had “a good conversation” and were scheduled to talk again Thursday.

The new arrivals “have no immediate legal pathway to work,” Pritzker said.

“If after these many months asylum-seekers still are not being given permission by the federal government to support themselves with a plethora of available jobs, well, frankly, this moves from a short-term humanitarian mission to a long-term crisis,” the governor said.

Pritzker, a key supporter of Biden’s reelection campaign who successfully pushed for his party to bring the Democratic National Convention to Chicago next year, has been talking about the need for swifter work authorization for months and has previously said he’s discussed it directly with the administration, all with no visible sign of progress.

The governor, who later Wednesday greeted first lady Jill Biden at O’Hare International Airport, stopped short of criticizing the president for lack of action, instead taking a shot at former President Donald Trump.

“We want to get to a solution,” Pritzker said. “So does the president, by the way. He is calling for comprehensive immigration reform. He believes that we ought to figure out a way to manage the challenge at the border, which started under the prior president, I might add … who is exacerbating it, he and his party, with the rhetoric that they’re putting out there.”

Others at Wednesday’s event, though, sought to frame the issue in more bipartisan terms. Rebecca Shi, executive director of the business coalition, noted that Republican governors such as Eric Holcomb of Indiana, Spencer Cox of Utah and Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma have expressed support for an expedited path to work for the migrants.

“This isn’t just a Democratic issue. This is an American issue,” Shi said.

Still, Johnson’s comments on the need for more federal help signaled the urgency of the situation from City Hall’s perspective. The city has struggled to provide shelter for the new arrivals, and is currently considering spending $1.5 million to buy a 10-acre site on the Northwest Side to transform a vacant Marine Corps reserves training facility into housing for migrants.

In July, New York City Mayor Eric Adams warned incoming migrants that there is “no guarantee” of help there for them, but at the time he stood alone among big-city mayors.

Johnson, in a news conference earlier this month, reacted to the comments by reaffirming Chicago’s commitment to welcome all and noting “government is still running. We’re still providing support and services.”

“I can’t speak for (Adams’) decision, but I certainly have used his, as well as (Los Angeles) Mayor (Karen) Bass’ and (Houston) Mayor (Sylvester) Turner’s, experiences as a way to reflect on that very question,” Johnson said when asked if Chicago would at some point actively discourage migrants from coming. “And here’s what I’m committed to: honoring the law of being a sanctuary city, in building systems of care that provide a pathway with dignity for individuals who are seeking refuge and hope here in the city of Chicago.”