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CHICAGO — As Illinois and Chicago officials this fall were planning how to ease the strain on the city’s overburdened migrant shelter system, members of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration crafted a Spanish-language flyer aimed at discouraging asylum-seekers at the southern border from coming north by painting a bleaker picture of the weather and support available here.
The flyer — which contrasts with much of the initial welcoming tone city and state leaders professed for migrants — was never distributed. A top official in Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration expressed concerns about the effectiveness of the strategy, a development that underscores the ongoing disharmony between the Pritzker administration and City Hall over the migrant response.
The disconnect has persisted, even after the state stepped in last month to promise $160 million in additional aid to the city that included covering the cost of a tent encampment to house migrants sleeping at police stations and at O’Hare International Airport, currently numbered at more than 600.
Indeed, the state Sunday paused at least through Tuesday construction on the tent site after it said it still had questions about an environmental report Johnson’s office released late Friday that detailed contaminants found on the land at 38th Street and California Avenue, along with plans to address them.
The late release of the environmental report drew frustration from the governor’s office, which was left waiting alongside the press and members of the public Friday, capping a day during which the state also announced an eleventh-hour partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository to fund shelter meals through the end of year after the city’s bidding process for a new food vendor was delayed.
Nevertheless, Pritzker on Monday insisted he and Johnson have a good relationship.
“I’ve had now three mayors that I’ve worked with. I’ve made it my mission to make sure that the relationship is good. Even when you disagree occasionally on something, you just need to work it out. And whenever we have disagreed, we have worked it out,” Pritzker said at an unrelated event in Peoria.
The aborted flyer, drafts of which the Tribune obtained through an open-records request, also highlights the simmering tensions between Democratic-run Illinois and Chicago and President Joe Biden’s White House over the migrant crisis, with state officials saying they were encouraged to create the document by the federal government.
“We were trying to be responsive to this strong recommendation … from the federal government and put something together,” said Amanda Elliott, chief of staff at the Illinois Department of Human Services, who, records show, helped craft the English text that was translated for the flyer.
The draft text, which includes deletions and revisions written in October, shows officials wanted to encourage asylum-seekers with family and friends in the Chicago area to ask them for help while at the same time informing others considering coming to Chicago that city shelters were full and that recent arrivals were sleeping outside police stations that were “overcrowded and at capacity.”
The October text also warned the weather in Chicago was about to turn frigid and that money for a state-funded rental assistance program might run out.
“Prepárate para pagar tu propia vivienda,” a Spanish version of the flyer warns: “Prepare yourself to pay for your own housing.”
In response to questions about whether federal officials recommended creating the flyer, a White House spokesperson said the Biden administration “has been in close contact with officials in Illinois and Chicago” about the migrant response.
“Sharing information regarding the availability of shelter space and services is a common and responsible practice that provides migrants with the critical information about possible destinations,” Biden administration spokesperson Angelo Fernández Hernández said in a statement. “While Republicans like (Texas) Governor (Greg) Abbott seek to use migrants as political pawns — responsible officials are doing their part to support recently arrived migrants.”
Elliott, the Department of Human Services chief of staff, acknowledged the discord between the flyer’s words of warning and the open-arms approach professed by the state and city.
“We were trying to be realistic in the flyer,” she said, by informing people, “This is what you’re going to expect when you come here.”
But, ultimately, concerns about the conflicting rhetoric and the effectiveness of the strategy led to a “mutual agreement” not to distribute the flyer, Elliott said.
The decision came after city and state officials traveled together to the southern border in October, and after Johnson’s deputy chief of staff, former state Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas, emailed Elliott on Oct. 20 to express her reservations.
“I have concerns that with this moving forward and under pressure from the federal government that has yet to demonstrate shared responsibility commensurate with their jurisdiction,” Pacione-Zayas wrote in the email, responding to a message in which Elliott said she was looking for feedback before sending the document to federal officials.
“I just saw language late yesterday, even though we discussed with the Feds the ineffectiveness of the tactic just this week,” wrote Pacione-Zayas, who did not respond to requests for an interview about the exchange.
State and city officials learned on their border trip that many migrants view this sort of messaging as “propaganda compared to what their family members and friends are sharing through TikTok and WhatsApp,” Pacione-Zayas wrote, adding Illinois and Chicago should focus their efforts on pressing the federal government to provide more support.
While plans for the flyer were abandoned, efforts to divert migrants from the city’s shelters and discourage them from coming to Chicago in the first place were a major part of the plan state and city officials laid out last month.
Aside from additional funding for the tent encampment, a centralized intake center for migrants arriving in Chicago, and more robust job and legal assistance, the plan involved policy changes from both the state and city that signaled support would not be indefinite.
A key role for the intake center — the location of which has yet to be announced — is to identify migrants who don’t plan to stay in Chicago and assist them moving on to another destination.
At the same time, the city instituted a phased-in 60-day limit on shelter stays, and the state reduced its rental assistance program to cover three months instead of six and cut off sign-ups for newer arrivals.
The most significant development to date, however, has been the state’s decision to fund an encampment with heated tents to relocate migrants who’ve been sleeping on floors and in camping tents at police stations. The state also plans to pay for a smaller indoor shelter at a former CVS store in the Little Village community.
The tent encampment was on hold, at least temporarily, on Monday as the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency reviewed a roughly 800-page report on the conditions at the onetime industrial site in Brighton Park.
The state EPA had “some outstanding questions” about how a city environmental consultant conducted testing at the site and the strategies recommended for remediation, Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said.
Work began at the site last week but was paused Sunday to allow state regulators to complete their review, Abudayyeh said, later adding the pause will continue through at least Tuesday.
“We are hopeful we will have more information tomorrow,” she said Monday evening.
At the site Monday, a small group of protesters gathered, including Leonardo Quintero, a police district councilman for the 12th District, who called the environmental assessment “the bare minimum” and said he was skeptical of Pritzker’s decision to pause construction.
Quintero and other protesters also raised ongoing concerns about GardaWorld Federal Services, the controversial private security contractor the state is paying to build and operate the encampment on behalf of the city.
The group had spray-painted “Housing for all” in purple lettering on a black banner they hung against the wooden fence enclosing property. Large white tents could be seen through the gaps in the fence, guarded by contracted employees in booths that overlook the site.
There was no movement inside. Construction trucks that had been working for weeks, even into the night, were parked to the side. Outside, protesters chanted: “Housing for all! Border walls fall!”
The group placed a tent on the sidewalk with a cutout of the mayor’s face on the side. A police officer came over and asked them to move it.
“Does this tent belong to anybody here?” the officer asked the group. “Brandon Johnson’s!” they yelled back.
Ricky D’Gucci, a South Side community organizer, said he thinks the mayor has turned his back on the people of Brighton Park. He’s concerned about the long-lasting effects of the reported contaminants on the site, especially for the children who will live at the base camp.
“We don’t know what’s going on underneath the soil. We don’t know the contaminants,” he said. “They’re not going to get sick today. They’re not going to get sick tomorrow. They’re going to get sick a year, maybe two years later.”
Ellis Malinowski, a community organizer on the Northwest Side, called the nearly 24,000 migrants who have arrived in Chicago since August 2022 on buses from border governments a “manufactured crisis.”
The Pritzker administration’s decision to pause construction was only delaying the inevitable, he said. Across the city, 13 of the city’s 22 police districts have been “decompressed,” or cleared of migrants. They still need a place to stay, Malinowski said.
“We’re being played by the city,” he said. “It is not sustainable, and it is a waste of funds going into this project, which could be going into longer-term solutions.”
As protesters filled the streets outside the Brighton Park site, a group of residents were denied a request for a temporary restraining order to block construction there. Still, Cook County Judge David Atkins ordered the city to notify the group’s attorney when any city work occurs at the site.
During a court hearing, the group’s attorney, Frank Avila, said construction should stop in part because the city study’s found some soil was contaminated.
“Putting some gravel on top is not environmental remediation,” Avila said.
City attorney Andrew Worseck highlighted the six-inch layer of gravel spread across the site to suppress contaminants and said more remediation work will come. The report promises toxic substances have been or will be removed to acceptable levels, he said.
“They’re not just being left there,” Worseck said. “It is an environmentally safer site than before the city was involved.”
Worseck, who said the shelter won’t be open for operations this week regardless of how quickly construction resumes, argued the Brighton Park resident plaintiffs don’t have proper standing and haven’t substantially proven negative effects will occur. The city is entitled to sidestep zoning and permit rules to construct the shelter because of the ongoing migrant housing crisis and needs to build it for the sake of “basic decency,” he said.
“It’s no secret to anyone who’s watching TV or reading the news that the city is under emergency,” Worseck said. “The city needs to find some place for them to stay.”