Democratic Convention organizers leaning on locals to handle possible migrant surge in August

Anticipating Chicago will see a surge of buses bearing migrants from the southern border ahead of the Democratic National Convention in August, organizers say they’re relying on Mayor Brandon Johnson and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to come up with a plan to stave off any ensuing potential chaos.

So far, Johnson and Pritzker have not detailed how they’ll respond if Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas attempts to make political hay by busing a larger-than-normal number of asylum-seekers to Chicago during the four-day convention at which President Joe Biden is expected to accept his party’s renomination.

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Both the mayor and the governor have publicly acknowledged the possibility of a swell in migrant arrivals timed for the convention and both have repeatedly accused Abbott of using vulnerable people as political pawns.

Along with tensions over the Biden administration’s ongoing support of Israel in its war in Gaza, disputes over the response to the migrant crisis have the potential to sow discord among Democrats as the party seeks to display unity while sending the president into a general election rematch with former Republican President Donald Trump.

“First of all, we can’t just look at these as migrants,” Minyon Moore, chair of the Democratic National Convention Committee, told reporters Thursday during a gathering of state Democratic Party leaders from across the country. “These are human beings. These are people that are being bused to places that some don’t even know where they’re going. And we have to show them compassion and the concern as a Democratic Party and a Democratic family.”

“We’re hoping that with the city’s help, with the state’s help, that we will have a plan in place so that it doesn’t feel like it’s just, ‘OK, we’ve got a bunch of buses coming in and providers should run,’ ” added Moore, a Chicago native and former aide to President Bill Clinton. “That’s not the way we are approaching this. We’re looking at a very holistic plan right now to make sure that they are safe if they come, if they’re just dropped off here.”

Drawing a contrast with Trump and the GOP, Moore said the migrants are “being used by the Republican Party.”

“We don’t want to see that happen, so we are going to treat them with dignity and fairness,” she said. “And we hope that the convention will go on and the city and the state will have a plan in place to address it if they do bring busloads.”

The city and state have struggled at times to work cooperatively in responding to the migrant crisis since the first buses arrived in August 2022. Behind-the-scenes disagreements have occasionally come into public view, such as when Pritzker shut down Johnson’s plan to build a state-funded tent encampment in the Brighton Park neighborhood over environmental concerns.

The issue also has created friction with the Biden administration, with both City Hall and Springfield repeatedly calling for Washington to do more to help localities away from the border that are receiving new migrants on a near-daily basis.

In response to questions Thursday about the status of planning for a possible surge in migrant bus arrivals at convention time, Johnson spokesman Cassio Mendoza said only, “The city of Chicago, in partnership with the state of Illinois and Cook County, is preparing for all possible eventualities in preparation for the Democratic National Convention including a sudden increase in the number of new arrivals from the southern border sent to Chicago.”

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

As of Thursday morning, 39,568 migrants had arrived in Chicago since busing began, with 8,972 currently housed in 18 city-run shelters and another 69 asylum-seekers awaiting placement, according to city data.

The City Council this week delayed a vote on $70 million in additional funding for the migrant response that state and Cook County officials sought earlier this year as part of a three-way agreement. Aldermen are expected to take up the issue Friday. And the Cook County Board on Thursday voted to reallocate $70 million for migrants from health care costs to instead cover food services.

The tension among Democrats at various levels of government was evident in the response Elizabeth “Lisa” Hernandez, chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, gave to a question about how Democrats would handle attempts to use the migrant crisis to score political points during the convention.

“It’s evident that at a state level we’re doing all that we can, but we’re limited. It’s a federal issue,” Hernandez said, adding that the local, state and federal governments “have been partnering up in different ways to manage the crisis.”

“Leading into the DNC, we’ll continue to work and manage the situation and continue to press yes, at the federal level, and the Biden administration is doing all that they can,” said Hernandez, also a state representative from Cicero.

Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, have created an opportunity for Democrats to use the broader issue against the GOP, who scuttled a bipartisan immigration and border security proposal earlier this year at Trump’s behest.

“There is no doubt that at the federal level, there’s been an attempt to bring some resolution, but the Republicans shut that down,” Hernandez said.

Heading toward the convention, Democrats hope to use Trump’s recent takeover of the Republican National Committee, ongoing GOP infighting in Congress and at the state level, and other issues to paint their opponents as a party in disarray.

But at the same time, the ongoing Israel-Hamas war creates an atmosphere in which divisions among the Democratic coalition will be on display both in the streets of Chicago, as happened when protesters temporarily blocked expressway access to O’Hare International Airport on Monday, and in meeting rooms at McCormick Place in August, where the party’s platform will be drafted.

Already, the key Midwestern states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin — which will be crucial to Biden’s success or failure in November — have seen substantial protest votes over the issue in their Democratic primaries.

“Certainly there’s a lot of pain on all sides in this country right now, and there are people in our party right now who want to voice that, and we need to give them the space for that,” Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, said Thursday while in Chicago for the DNC event.

“We are a big family, which means sometimes we have family food fights like this. And the reality is we just have to keep working through them despite some differences.”

Meanwhile, Michigan Democratic Chair Lavora Barnes said the party has to work to persuade voters who cast “uncommitted” Democratic presidential primary votes, largely in protest of White House policy involving Israel and its attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, to vote for Biden.

“We’re having conversations with these folks, explaining and helping them understand and remember who Donald Trump is (and the) reality of what would happen if Donald Trump got elected versus what will happen when you elect Biden and Harris,” Barnes said.

“And those are real conversations we’re having, where we’re reminding people of his record. Trump is not the answer to this issue, not at all, and we have to make sure we’re making that message heard.”