Johnson Administration lays out big picture migrant plan at first of monthly refugee meetings
Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration laid out its big-picture goals Wednesday for creating infrastructure to resettle asylum seekers long-term as hundreds still remain in police station lobbies.
“We are a welcoming city. We do have an ordinance. We can’t just say it. We have to be about it,” said Johnson’s Deputy Chief of Staff Cristina Pacione-Zayas.
Top deputies of Johnson’s administration testified before the Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which is trying to turn a new leaf under the new chair, Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward. As the migrant crisis unfolded last summer, the committee didn’t meet for more than a year — despite having a more than $120,000 budget. The committee is now aiming to meet monthly.
Saying the city needs to “operationalize” its welcoming city promise, Pacione-Zayas laid out a long term plan, indicating officials expect the influx of migrants to continue for some time. That strategy includes maintaining “supply space,” buying shelter sites to use when needed that can serve as community hubs when not, as well as advocating for immigration reform at the federal level “in a way that I don’t know if we’ve seen that before.”
“The root cause of what we’re experiencing comes from failed immigration policy at the federal level … This is the result of the U.S. government destabilizing Latin American and Caribbean countries, government, economies,” Pacione-Zayas said.
“Thankfully, we are a city that’s welcoming. That’s why we’re going to do all this work to organize to meet the moment and beyond. But ultimately, what we intend to do is have more consistent engagement with our elected officials at the federal level,” Pacione-Zayas said.
More immediately, Pacione-Zayas told the committee that the city’s goal continues to be moving migrants out of police stations and into one of 12 city shelters. More than 650 asylum seekers are sleeping on police station floors with cots, blankets or blow-up mattresses as they await shelter placement. Nearly 5,000 asylum seekers are being housed in city shelters.
Officials are still seeking city-owned, large spaces to open more shelters. The city has considered dozens of sites, from school buildings, vacant big box stores and churches to possibly tap as shelters, according to a list obtained by WBEZ through an open records request.
Pacione-Zayas outlined an “all hands on deck” approach that includes coordinating with state and county officials and tapping philanthropic organizations to provide “bridge funding” to nonprofit and mutual aid groups that are awaiting reimbursement from the city.
Noting she comes from the state government, Pacione-Zayas said upon taking on her new role in the city, she started a daily call with state officials, and cited that coordination as a reason for securing an additional $92 million in state assistance. The city is slated to receive an additional $10.5 million and Illinois to get $19.3 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support its efforts.
The additional state funding may keep officials from having to go back to the City Council for additional funds. After a contentious debate last month, City Council members approved $51 million in surplus funds to go toward supporting the city’s efforts as city officials sounded the alarm that the city was out of money.
That funding largely went to expenses from January through June, Pacione-Zayas told alderpersons. Total estimates of expenses in that time period for the efforts is actually $101.3 million, she said.
Staffing city shelters accounted for a majority of those costs, with $72.6 million. Other major costs included $10.6 million on non-congregate sheltering, $9.1 million on meals and $4.1 million on facility maintenance and operations.
Kansas-based Favorite Healthcare Staffing has been contracted to staff city shelters, and has been paid millions since March 2022, according to the city’s contracting portal. Hourly rates for positions laid out in a May contract range from $60 for food, trash and laundry runners to upwards of $235 for health care professionals.
Pacione-Zayas said that contract is currently being re-evaluated as the city looks to tap nonprofits and community-based organizations to help support staffing efforts and host shelters. That includes getting volunteers approved, through the Office of Inspector General, to work in shelter sites, Pacione-Zayas said. Media have been restricted from entering city shelters, and volunteers have complained of being shut out when trying to help.
Separate from the Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Johnson’s administration has convened a working group of 12 alderpersons — just shy of the number that would subject them to open meeting requirements — to address the influx of asylum seekers.
Several members praised the Johnson administration’s inclusion of alderpersons in the city plans after some said they were “blindsided” by decisions made under Mayor Lori Lightfoot. But several alderpersons still called for more transparency from the city.
“DFSS should be here as well,” Ald. Jeanette Taylor said, referring to the Department of Family and Support Services, “because they made a lot of decisions without having any input from us or with us. And so they should be here to answer a lot of those questions.”
A major tenant of relieving the strain on city shelters and moving asylum seekers out of police stations is moving asylum seekers into more permanent housing.
But the wait for an apartment can be long. Affordable housing, willing landlords and funding is in short supply as nonprofit organizations work to keep pace to place a constant clip of asylum seekers arriving to the city.
Since November, the state has administered a rental assistance program for asylum seekers funded with federal relief dollars.
In total, the Illinois Housing Development Authority has disbursed $7.7 million in rental assistance, spokesman Andrew Field said Wednesday. Nearly 1,300 applications have been received for the aid, with roughly 1,000 of those applications approved. A littler under 600 landlords are currently participating in the program, Field said.
The city’s Department of Housing has allocated $4 million of its emergency rental assistance dollars toward resettlement efforts, and Pacione-Zayas said the city expects an additional $25 million to be coming down the pipeline from the state to go toward rental assistance.
“We want people to be self-determined, self-actualized, self-sustainable,” Pacione-Zayas said.
Mariah Woelfel and Tessa Weinberg cover city government and politics for WBEZ.