‘We Asked for It’: Chicago Democrats Blame Progressive Leaders’ Sanctuary-City Policies for Migrant Crisis

As a victim-services advocate in Chicago, Zerlina Smith-Members struggles every day to obtain scarce resources and shelter space for victims of violence in the city.

As a black mother and activist on Chicago's West Side, she can't help but notice the poor-performing schools, the bad health outcomes, the food deserts, the homelessness, the high taxes, the gangs, and the illegal guns that plague her community.

"It's just a lot, and it's overwhelming," Smith-Members said of the challenges.

That is why Smith-Members, an independent Democrat, is frustrated by the response of her party's far-left leaders to the influx of migrants who have flooded the city over the last year and a half. In a desire to be "welcoming," the state under Governor J. B. Pritzker has directed $640 million towards  sheltering, feeding, and caring for the migrants, while the city of Chicago under mayor Brandon Johnson has paid out at least $138 million, according to media reports.

To Smith-Members, that is money that should be spent to benefit needy Chicagoans. Instead, she said, "we have people who have come her illegally, who have jumped the line."

Smith-Members, a leader in the Chicago-Cook County Coalition for Humane Migration Management, is among the growing chorus of Chicago residents, neighborhood activists, and business owners — many of them left-wingers and Democrats — who are calling foul over the city's and the state's handling of the ongoing migration crisis. Neighborhood leaders are increasingly angry over having their parks and community centers taken away and turned into shelters. Business leaders have complained about soaring cases of shoplifting as well as the deteriorating conditions outside some shelters that are driving their customers away.

The migrant crisis has also exposed sharp divides in Chicago's Democratic base, with the progressive response to the crisis infuriating some more traditional Democratic groups. Black Democrats such as Smith-Members have been some of the most vocal critics.

"The immigration crisis is going to flip the state of Illinois purple," Smith-Members said.

While Democratic leaders and mainstream news outlets have pointed the blame at Texas's Republican governor, Greg Abbott, accusing him of orchestrating the crisis by busing tens of thousands of migrants to northern sanctuary cities, several Chicagoans from across the city who spoke to National Review said they aren't buying it.

"It's a Biden thing. It's a Pritzker thing. It's a Brandon Johnson thing. They wanted sanctuary cities," said Smith-Members, who is running for Johnson's former seat on the Cook County commission. "It's not Abbott's fault, because he didn't ask for it. We asked for it."

Dr. Lora Chamberlain, a peace activist on Chicago's North Side, said she doesn't blame Abbott "one little bit" for busing migrants to cities that previously said they would welcome them.

"What state could possibly take in millions of refugees?" said Chamberlain, who is angry at city leaders for converting her neighborhood's beloved community center into a migrant shelter.

Chicago has been a sanctuary city since the mid 1980s. Days after Pritzker was sworn in as governor in 2019, during Donald Trump's presidency, he signed an executive order saying that immigrants and asylum-seekers are "critical to the fabric of our state" and help to "make Illinois a great place to live." He later sent a letter to then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo saying Illinois would "proudly consent" to helping refugees and that he was "committed to ensuring that Illinois is a welcoming state, especially for refugees and those seeking asylum," according to a report in the Chicago Tribune.

That, of course, was before tens of thousands of migrants, primarily Venezuelan refugees, began pouring into Chicago. According to a city dashboard, more than 35,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in the city "via Texas Buses & Airplane" since August 31, 2002. They initially slept on police station floors and at Midway and O'Hare airports. While the city has settled about 12,000 of them, more than 13,000 remain in 28 temporary shelters around the city.

Last month, Pritzker sent a letter to Abbott pleading "for mercy" and asking him to stop busing migrants to Chicago during the winter. Johnson has said the influx of migrants into Chicago is "unsustainable," and he has accused Abbott of continuing to "sow seeds of chaos."

Conditions in some of the shelters have been described as "deplorable," and "freezing." In December, a 5-year-old boy died after suffering a medical emergency inside one of the shelters. News reports say several other children and adults at the shelter were hospitalized as well. The city is planning to start booting some migrants from the shelters in March.

At the same time, people who live near shelters have complained of surges in illicit drug use and prostitution. In August, a migrant without a driver’s license living in a shelter was ticketed for driving a car into a building. Some migrants have been arrested multiple times on shoplifting charges.

The political divide over the migrant crisis has led to dueling charges of racism and, in some cases, flowering conspiracy theories about subversive forces — corporate fat cats, drug cartels, American political operatives — masterminding the crisis for their benefit.

Chicagoans who spoke with National Review generally said they do not take issue with foreigners seeking better lives for themselves and their families, but they said there must be a better process for accepting migrants in the country and settling them in the city. And they take issue with the impact on their communities, their businesses, and their neighbors.

'We Are at Our Wits' End'

Brandon Vulpitta, a co-owner of Brando's Speakeasy karaoke and cocktail bar in the Chicago Loop — the financial heart of the city's downtown — said running a business next to one of the larger migrant shelters has been "brutal." Brando's is next door to the Standard Club, a private Jewish club that shuttered in 2020 and now houses more than 1,000 mostly single migrant men.

Many spend their days hanging out on street corners, Vulpitta said. Over the last year, he's seen fights, illicit drug sales, and people illegally selling food out of coolers and trunks of cars.

"One day, we were open and we looked out the back window and there was a boxing match in Pritzker Park," Vulpitta said. "It wasn't a brawl. They were wearing boxing gloves. They had a crowd watching them. I don't know if they were betting on it or what."

Since the shelter opened, the area has become "dirty" and a "breeding ground for rats," he said. "There's pizza boxes and wrappers and soda bottles and you name it just strewn throughout. There's stuff everywhere. It's very uncleanly."

It wasn't always that way. The area around Brando's used to be welcoming, Vulpitta said. "And then Covid happened, and we had the riots, and then we had a lot of gang activity downtown, and now the migrants," he said. "It's like gut punch after gut punch, honestly."

One resident of the nearby Fisher Building apartments confirmed that the arrival of migrants last March "changed the neighborhood." He said the "area has accumulated more trash," and the nearby park "is not really a great place for my kids to hang out right now."

Rent at the building ranges from $1,700 to $3,400 per month, according to its website.

Vulpitta said the deteriorating conditions outside his bar have kept customers away and led to some online reviewers saying they didn't feel safe in the "sketchy" area. And while he credits the city's new police superintendent, their local police commander, and his district's new alderman for helping to improve conditions around the shelter, business is still down about 20 percent since the migrants arrived, he said.

"Our staff is making less money. We're making less money. All in all, it has had a pretty heavy impact on us," Vulpitta said. "We are at our wits' end."

Vulpitta said that in a "weird way," he has some sympathy for Pritzker and Johnson, "frankly, because we have no help. The feds have not helped at all." He also said he doesn't believe that what Abbott is doing is right, "but I think they've kind of given us a taste of what they've been dealing with for a while."

Fighting for the Broadway Armory

On Chicago's North Side, some neighbors in the Edgewater community remain angry after the city converted their Broadway Armory Park community center into a shelter last summer.

Chamberlain, the doctor and peace activist, said that before it was turned into a migrant shelter, the center was "heavily utilized" by her neighbors.  It offered after-school programming for younger kids, a teen center, a gym, services for seniors, and even a trapeze school.

"It was the only place in our ward where we could have a major meeting, like 500, 600 people," said Chamberlain, who had been planning to attend yoga classes there.

Chamberlain credited neighborhood leaders for turning the armory into a community asset. "We worked our asses off to get the funding for different programs, and we got something for our community," she said. "And then they come right in and just take it without consulting us."

She believes empty churches in the area would have been a better choice for shelters.

A neighborhood group, the Save Our Broadway Armory Park coalition, is now fighting to reclaim the community center. The conversion to a shelter was only supposed to be temporary, but Chamberlain said it's unclear when the center will be open to the community again. "That was one of the things that we were saying to the community: There is no exit plan here," she said.

Since the migrants arrived, begging on the street has exploded around the shelter, Chamberlain said. "It costs me $25 to walk down the street now," she said.

But, she said, "I personally have a heart for the people coming across as asylum-seekers." She believes U.S. foreign policy in Venezuela is partially to blame for the crisis.

Lost Respect for Democratic Leaders

Tio Hardiman, a black South Side anti-violence activist, is critical of the large amounts of taxpayer money the city is spending on the migrants — including a $9,000 rental assistance program, food and laundry services, and health-care screenings — calling it a "slap in the face to all the people over here that have been deprived of resources for decades."

"The reality is, if you look at Chicago now, you have high unemployment rates among African-American youth in particular, you have a lack of mental-health services in Chicago, you had thousands of homeless people in Chicago already that were never, ever focused on like they are focusing on the migrants," Hardiman said.

In addition to competing for city resources, poor Chicagoans are also competing with migrants at food pantries and while panhandling, he said. "I'm not against them living their lives," Hardiman said of the migrants. But, he said, "it's creating too much competition between poor people in Chicago that never, ever received this level of support. Never ever."

In recent months, Chicago has faced at least three lawsuits filed by black, Hispanic, and Asian residents who have argued that city leaders are doing more to serve migrants than their own vulnerable citizens, according to a report last month by the Free Press. The crisis is leading many black Democrats to turn on their own party, according to the report.

Linda Johnson, a community council member in the Austin neighborhood in northwest Chicago, was part of a group that successfully fought off an attempt by city leaders to turn their Amundsen Park fieldhouse into a migrant shelter last year. She is also among the black Chicago leaders who are speaking out against taxpayer funding of the migrant crisis.

"That's money and resources out of our community," she said. "The city is not focused on the various things going on in our city. We have a lot of violence going on. We have a lot of carjackings going on. But the main thing they're focused on is migrants and shelters."

Johnson said she believes that ultimately the crisis is the result of a political "disconnect from the top all the way down."

"We know the president needs to do something about border control," she said, "but I also think that everybody should be working together to improve this."

Hardiman, who ran for governor twice as a Democrat, said that politically, at the moment, "I'm in between now, just being honest with you." While he acknowledged that Johnson inherited some of the problems, Hardiman's not happy with the way the mayor has handled the crisis.

"I have nothing against him, personally," Hardiman said. "But his policies have really discouraged me when it comes down to this migrant issue. I've lost a lot of respect for him."

"If I was the mayor right now, I would make an executive decision to bring an end to sanctuary-city [status] in Chicago," he added. "I would get rid of it because we're not prepared to deal with it."

Democratic state senator Willie Preston, during a recent community meeting in the predominantly black Auburn Gresham neighborhood, asked residents if they supported revoking Chicago's sanctuary-city status, according to the Chicago Tribune. "We need a cap on migrants because the people don't want it," he said at the meeting. "We cannot afford it, and I'm willing to fight."

Smith-Members is taking it a step farther by attempting to launch a recall of Johnson, she said. A poll last month found that at least 70 percent of Chicago voters don't approve of Johnson's performance during his first eight months as mayor.

Smith-Members said the migrant crisis "has shown everyone's hands in our leadership, which has been the Democratic Party" that "blacks really don't matter."

"There's a division in our Democratic Party. It has weakened. It is going to get worse," Smith-Members said. "The city of Chicago voters have woke up. The state of Illinois voters have woke up. And they're not standing with our old leadership."

As for the migrants: "It would be cheaper," she said, "for us to send them back than to keep them here.”

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‘We Asked for It’: Chicago Democrats Blame Progressive Leaders’ Sanctuary-City Policies for Migrant Crisis

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