Plan to house migrants at Chicago gym met with both boos, support

Far Northwest Side neighbors bitterly shouted down city officials and each other during a divisive meeting convened Tuesday on a plan to house hundreds of migrants at Wilbur Wright College.

The nearly two-hour session — hosted inside the same Wright College gymnasium into which the city’s asylum-seekers could be moved as early as Saturday — began as standing room only, after residents from Dunning, Portage Park and other nearby communities packed the bleachers and rows of foldout chairs to pose questions and vent opposition.

Before the meeting kicked off, the crowd’s polarization was already reflected in the presence of pro-law enforcement Blue Lives Matter flags as well as rainbow posters reading: “A better Chicago starts with US!” City officials then began their briefing on the temporary shelter but were often drowned out by alternating waves of boos and applause. Lastly, a question-and-answer portion saw residents verbally clash over purported safety and public health concerns and whether Chicago is living up to its ideal as a sanctuary city.

It’s the latest in a series of conflicts over how the city can absorb the recent influx of migrants, a crisis that has seen nearly 10,000 new arrivals in Chicago since Aug. 31, mostly from Central and South America, according to figures presented by city officials Tuesday evening.

One of the most contentious moments unfolded when a man approached the microphone and baldly stated, “They don’t belong here. They’ll be bringing disease into the neighborhood.”

Nicholas Sposato, the 38th Ward alderman who said he arranged the meeting to inform his constituents, tried to tamp down the flustered audience with a plea to “be respectful.” But the next speaker raised fears over what would happen if the migrants who were to arrive at Wright College didn’t return at night.

“They can just be roaming the neighborhood,” the woman said. “We have seniors, children, disabled and vulnerable women. Do all these people have background checks?”

One audience member shouted in response: “Concealed carry.”

Under U.S. law, migrants have the right to seek asylum at the port-of-entries along the country’s border and must cooperate with background checks when they seek official protective status. But with the federal government lagging at processing those applications for months now, one of the major stressors in Chicago is that more than 700 new arrivals — many bused or flown from the Texas border — are now sleeping on the floors of various police stations, most of them families with children, officials said.

The Chicago police’s 16th District located in the Jefferson Park neighborhood is no exception, with up to 40 migrants huddled inside there per day since late April, the city said. Moving asylum-seekers to the college is intended to address that issue. City officials said the plan is to move up to 400 people — families only; no single adults — to the college through Aug. 1. No visitors, drugs, alcohol or smoking would be allowed. An 11 p.m. curfew would be in place, and residents would have to sign in and out.

But such provisions appeared to do little to mollify some in the audience.

City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado endured the first round of boos when he said told the crowd the was “confident that this will go well.” Sposato tried to calm them down with a “We’re better than this,” but some in the crowd kept yelling, “Bulls—.”

Jesús Del Toro, project manager from the city’s Office of New Americans, was also heckled by some in the crowd when he noted Italians and Poles too were immigrants fleeing political suppression and poverty and “for the most part, the Venezuelans are coming here for similar reasons.”

More boos, but also some cheers, arose when Matthew Doughtie, an emergency coordinator with the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications said, “Right now, Wright College is the solution that we need.”

Still, a sizable portion of the crowd bellowed their support for migrants too. Neighbors walked up and said the fault lies with Republican governors of border states who started the initiative to shepherd asylum-seekers to Chicago and other major cities up north. One woman who said she’s been a resident of the ward for 15 years added, “We taught our children to have compassion and to have empathy, and I’m very sad that we are not showing compassion and empathy to these families.”

Audience members expressed more cynical comments too, such as one noting the expense of providing water to the migrants. Some antagonized each other; a woman inquiring how Chicagoans can help the asylum-seekers was met with someone in the crowd yelling at her to “Give them the keys to your house.” One person challenged the city’s commitment to move the migrants out by Aug. 1, asking, “Where do they go?”

Area resident Jim Ignatowski yells at a panel of speakers during the public comments segment of a meeting about housing migrants at Wilbur Wright College on May 23, 2023.

When asked about the plans ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, Sposato said, “Well, I don’t not support it.” He noted the new shelter would provide immediate relief to the 16th District police station but would not solve the overall “heart-wrenching” crisis that has gone on since last August.

“The alternative is they stay in the police stations, which I know nobody wants to see that,” Sposato said. “This is a strong police-supporting community.”

The alderman said he doesn’t expect all his constituents to be happy, listing anxieties over the “vetting” process of their backgrounds: “I would guess the fear of the unknown is the biggest concern of people.”

The strain on local social services reached a fever pitch in May when former Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared a state of emergency over the situation while city budget officials continued scrambling to find the funds to keep shelter operations afloat past June.

Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th, during a discussion meeting about migrants at Wilbur Wright College on May 23, 2023.

The roots of the humanitarian crisis go back to late last summer, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, sent the first busloads of migrants north from mainly Central and South America, arguing border towns had run out of room and resources to shelter migrants and said “sanctuary cities” such as Chicago should accept them.

Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Brandon Johnson have derided Abbott’s action as a cruel political stunt, but Abbott maintains his actions are a cry for help from President Joe Biden and other Democrats to fix the escalating crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Federal border restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic also expired this month, potentially spelling a new era of record migration.

Some communities have become more accepting of migrant shelters locating in their neighborhoods after initial resistance. But most of the solutions are temporary, with the strain on the city’s budget continuous and growing.

However, the City Council delayed a vote Wednesday on allocating $51 million in surpluses to keep shelter and food operations running through next month. Sposato voted “no” in committee because he said it was unfair to designate city funds for migrants and deny existing homeless Chicagoans that same aid. His concerns have been echoed by some Black aldermen from the South and West sides, who said their communities haven’t seen investment in decades.

Still, one longtime resident of Dunning told the Tribune he walked away from Tuesday’s meeting feeling more questions were answered than not, especially with respect to public safety.

“It says a lot about the divisiveness that’s going on … across the country,” Daniel Aviles, 45, said. “But when it comes to something like this, we have to find common ground.”

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