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Chicago’s first migrant camp slated to begin construction, as environmental report remains pending

Roberto Silvestre protests at the gate of the tent city in the Brighton Park neighborhood on 38th Street as work is underway, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)  (E. Jason Wambsgans)
By Alice Yin Chicago Tribune

Workers are set to start building Chicago’s first government-run tent encampment for migrants at a Southwest Side lot, officials said after a series of recent false starts and stops over the controversial base camp.

Workers on Tuesday will “lay out materials, measure and begin placing bases” for the large encampment in Brighton Park, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s spokesman Ronnie Reese said in a statement.

Barring complications, setup of the tent structures at 38th Street and California Avenue could begin as early as Wednesday, Reese said.

Chicago’s first migrant camp would arrive about three months after the mayor first revealed the idea as a way to get the asylum-seekers off police station floors and sidewalks and into heated tents before winter. Since then, his plan has faced pushback from Brighton Park residents who say they fear the impact of the new arrivals to their neighborhood, as well as from immigration advocates who worry about conditions at the encampment.

The pace of finding suitable locations and assessing how environmentally safe they are for people to live on has also been slower than expected.

All of the construction and setup is being done by GardaWorld Federal Services, a private security firm the state is contracting to build and run the camps. Its employees arrived at the site Monday to deliver equipment and materials, such as stone, and graded the site, Reese said.

Meanwhile, an ongoing environmental assessment that has worried the local alderman and advocates remains pending. Reese said “additional details” on those concerns will be released this week but maintained they should not impede progress on setting up the base camp, which the state said will house about 2,000 migrants.

“Common mitigation strategies are ongoing and anticipated for completion by the end of this week, weather permitting,” Reese said. “The City is confident that the property will be suited for the purpose for which it will be used.”

On Monday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker teased the beginning of construction this week while advertising his most hands-on involvement yet in the city’s effort to shelter asylum-seekers. He said the state will tap its $160 million investment in migrant services to fund the Brighton Park site as well as a new brick-and-mortar shelter in Little Village, both of which will be the first shelters directly supported by the state.

But local Ald. Julia Ramirez, 12th, and neighbors have opposed the incoming camp, with the alderman publicly asserting construction was to begin Monday despite her outstanding concerns on environmental issues and other problems. Johnson’s administration at first did not address questions on that timeline before saying that work won’t begin until later, but the environmental remediation should conclude this week.

Then the governor announced the construction would begin later this week, while noting the camp will not officially open its doors until assessments on its environmental viability — part of Ramirez and community advocates’ frustrations — conclude. The state has reached an agreement with GardaWorld in which the company won’t bill for work performed there if the site proves not to be inhabitable, Pritzker’s office said.

Both that base camp and the brick-and-mortar shelter could open as early as mid-December and will have indoor heating, meals and social services such as assistance with applying for work permits, all to be funded by the state. Priority for those beds will be given to families and disabled individuals sleeping outdoors at Chicago police stations or at O’Hare International Airport.

Plans for the first migrant encampment with winterized tents to be set up at Brighton Park were floated around mid-October. The city’s six-month, $548,400 land use contract for the site at 3710 S. California Ave. was approved shortly after, eliciting objections from Ramirez, who said she had not been notified the lease for the site in her ward had been signed.

As of Monday, more than 22,600 migrants have arrived in Chicago in the last 15 months, per city data. But as wintry weather continues, the Johnson administration has emptied out eight of the 21 police stations where mini-tent cities had cropped up and families often slept on lobby floors in squalid conditions.

Now 1,200 migrants remain at the Chicago police districts, with another 170 at O’Hare International Airport. That’s down from a peak of about 3,800 migrants across the stations and airports. Another 12,800 of them were at the city-run shelters.