Alderman opposes Johnson’s proposed new migrant shelter location ahead of Democratic convention

A South Side alderman told constituents Friday that Mayor Brandon Johnson is seeking to open a new migrant shelter in her ward and move asylum-seekers away from downtown ahead of the Democratic National Convention, a move she vehemently criticized over environmental and safety concerns.

Ald. Nicole Lee, 11th, sent an email to her constituents Friday afternoon informing them of Johnson’s team approaching her with plans to build the shelter at 3951 S. Canal St. and 3909 S. Normal Ave., in the New City neighborhood. City officials explained the reason was because of the planned closure of the Standard Club migrant shelter downtown before the DNC comes to Chicago this August, Lee said in the message.

“Earlier this week, Mayor Johnson’s administration notified Ald. Lee that they are considering plans to build a new temporary migrant shelter in the 11th Ward at 3951 S. Canal St. to replace the Standard Club shelter downtown before the Democratic National Convention,” Lee’s email reads. “Yesterday, Ald. Lee met with Mayor Johnson about these plans and outlined in no uncertain terms that she is fully and unequivocally opposed to standing up this shelter at this location.”

A spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Family and Support Services said in a statement Friday evening that Lee “was given notice in an effort to gather feedback and information about a potential temporary emergency shelter site.”

“We will continue to be transparent and inform community stakeholders as we gather more information and determine next steps,” the city said in the statement.

The question of how Chicago should handle the 40,000-plus asylum-seekers who have made their way to the city since 2022 has dogged Johnson throughout his first year in office and is expected to remain an urgent matter this summer. The mayor’s task for the DNC this August will be to prove Chicago can live up to its purported values as a welcoming city for all — without drawing negative attention to President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party.

Republicans have pointed to past scenes of migrant families sleeping outside Chicago police stations as proof Biden is weak on immigration, and the nation’s eyes will be on the United Center as well as the downtown business district during the affair. The latter area is home to the Standard Club shelter, 320 S. Plymouth Court, where over 900 migrants live.

The reasons Lee cited for her opposition to the 39th and Canal shelter proposal were concerns over migrants staying on land in a heavily industrial area that she said was not fully vetted for residential use and is surrounded by train tracks.

Furthermore, she said, “The administration has not provided us with an adequate justification for why this proposed relocation of migrants from the Standard Club shelter to this property is appropriate, necessary or fiscally responsible.”

In the past couple of months, the pace of buses from Texas has slowed, allowing the city to shutter some shelters as it begins evicting longtime residents of those sites in an effort to right-size a costly apparatus for housing and feeding the migrants. There are currently 17 active shelter locations, home to about 8,200 residents as of Friday. But officials are unsure how lasting that reprieve will be.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has said he sent the first bus of migrants to Chicago in August 2022 as part of his move to give liberal cities with pro-immigration stances what he said was a taste of what border states are enduring amid a massive migration wave from Latin America.

Many of the asylum-seekers are Venezuelans who arrived impoverished and continue struggling to obtain work permits. Abbott was immediately castigated by then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other top Democrats in Illinois.

Johnson succeeded Lightfoot in last year’s election by running on a progressive platform of promising historic investments in marginalized communities, including immigrants. The reality of those hopes has proven challenging.

Most recently, the mayor had to go back to the City Council to ask for another $70 million in migrant funding — on top of this year’s budgeted $150 million — after earlier insisting the city was done allocating money for that cause this year. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Pritzker have pledged $250 million more for the city’s migrant costs, the bulk of which is pending in Springfield as part of the governor’s next budget package.

The recent funding crunch was not the first time Johnson has needed to stretch city coffers to sustain the migrant mission, which has cost more than $310 million since 2022. His administration has expressed frustration internally and externally over what it sees as a lack of sufficient help from the federal government, but the looming arrival of the DNC places Johnson in a tough spot as he wants to show a unified front with the Democratic Party.

Yet locally, the migrant crisis has proven one of Johnson’s most controversial areas, with his administration drawing fire from both his progressive base and Black aldermen over everything from high-level fiscal decisions to struggles with City Council members over the placement of shelters in their wards — as evidenced by Lee’s stark words on Friday.

The most high-profile clash over the shelters occurred last fall as the mayor debuted a controversial plan to erect winterized migrant base camps to house asylum-seekers who were at the time camped outside police districts. But the administration’s fateful decision to pick a site on former industrial land in Brighton Park led to a protracted, public disagreement with presiding Ald. Julia Ramirez, 12th, before the governor stepped in and halted the entire operation over environmental concerns.

In other wards, aldermen opposing migrant shelters have fared better. West Side Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th, successfully shot down a proposed site in Amundsen Park last year amid sharpening concerns that Black communities like his should not bear the brunt of housing the newcomers when they are still recovering from disinvestment.

Lee, who represents Chinatown and Bridgeport after being appointed by Lightfoot and then winning a full term, said she wants to see the Johnson administration engage her community in several meetings before signing a lease on the property.

“As our city grapples with this unprecedented influx of migrants, it is crucial that we handle the migrant crisis safely, responsibly, and with full transparency,” Lee wrote.

Chicago Tribune’s Jake Sheridan contributed.