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Tempers flare at hearing on Chicago's migrant crisis as influx of asylum seekers ramps up

Heated meeting at City Hall on growing migrant crisis
Heated meeting at City Hall on growing migrant crisis 02:37

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A key City Council committee met for nearly five hours on Friday to discuss the latest on Chicago's efforts to house thousands of asylum seekers.

The meeting came amid a growing influx of migrants into Chicago, with six buses carrying migrants arriving on Thursday, and another nine arriving on Friday.

Dozens of buses have arrived in the past week alone, leaving the city to figure out where to house all the newly arrived migrants.

As of Friday, approximately 9,300 migrants were staying at 21 temporary shelters set up by the city, with more than 2,300 sleeping at police stations or the city's airports.

During a meeting of the Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, shouts erupted in the council chambers as angry Chicago residents repeatedly interrupted city officials' efforts to brief frustrated aldermen on the status of the city's efforts to help immigrants.

Hearing on Chicago's migrant crisis grows heated 02:19

Meantime, volunteers who have been helping from the start made it clear they are in desperate need for more funding.

The goal of the meeting was to make sure everyone on the same page with the city's efforts to find permanent housing for migrants, establish more temporary shelters, and set up new tent base camps to relieve pressure on police stations where asylum seekers have been sleeping on the floors.

Many alderpeople told top officials with Mayor Brandon Johnson's administration that they felt they and their constituents have been left out of the loop on the planning process so far.

Volunteer groups that have been working from the start to make asylum seekers feel welcome in Chicago have been left out of the city's funding efforts. City officials want to work with nonprofit groups to operate some of the city's migrant shelters, rather than continue relying solely on a contract with Favorite Staffing Healthcare, which currently staffs shelters.

The question remains as to whether city, state, or federal funding would be used to pay those groups to staff shelters.

"Those are people we should've been paying first, because them are people from our communities," said Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th).

Meanwhile, city leaders are moving forward with a $29 million contract with a private security firm to build winterized tent encampments in Chicago for migrants.

With no word yet on where or when large so-called "base camps" of military-grade tents will be built, with the goal to get migrants out of police stations, city leaders said they also need more help from the state.

Alderpeople and aides to the mayor pointed out the city is running 21 migrant shelters, while the state hasn't set up any.

Making things more dire, shelters and police stations are at or near capacity, but CBS 2 has learned a new migrant shelter is coming to Pilsen. The large location is at Cermak Road and Halsted Street. It appears to be an abandoned warehouse.

City officials told aldermen they have sorted through 250 possible locations for future shelters, with current sites already struggling to find room for more migrants.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), who chairs the committee, said he disagrees with the Johnson administration's plan to build so-called "base camps" of large tents for migrants. Vasquez has said he would prefer the city to focus on repurposing vacant buildings to house migrants, so the city can then redevelop those same sites for long-term use once they are no longer needed as shelters.

"If the concern of this administration is procurement, then we should work on it. If it is increasing shelter and housing capacity, we should work on it. If it's about accountability with whoever we contract with, we should focus on it. If it's about creating shelter for all who need it, whether they are existing unhoused or new arrivals, that is something this council and these members, together, we should work on together to take on," he said. 

Vasquez said he doesn't think anyone in city government is excited about the plan for migrant base camps, but he believes the Johnson administration feels they don't have any other option to get migrants out of police stations soon.

"It's not like they're hop, skipping, and jumping to get tents setup. It's difficult for everybody involved," Vasquez said.

On the federal level, city officials said they've received $41 million to help deal with the influx of asylum seekers, but that isn't enough to take care of migrants coming to Chicago.

"The situation has got to a point where we absolutely need our federal folks to be able to come in and give us resources. We cannot continue to manage this financially. We don't have the resources. We also don't have the staff," said Ald. Lamont Robinson (4th).

During the meeting, several people protested the city's ongoing efforts to aid asylum seekers, saying there are others in Chicago who should come first.

"So you guys have all this passion for new arrivals. What about the passion for the homeless vets that served America?" one woman said.

It was also revealed during the meeting that Johnson and a group of alderpeople plan to head to the Mexico border. 

"We need to see what's going on at the border as buses are coming in daily. We need to see where you're coming from. We need to be able to talk with folks we need to assess before folks are getting here to the city of Chicago," Robinson said.

Details on that border visit are expected in the next few weeks. 

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