'We said no!' Tensions escalate at Brighton Park migrant meeting

Tensions escalated in the city’s Brighton Park neighborhood during a meeting Tuesday evening over a proposed encampment for approximately 2,000 migrants.  

Residents say they only found out about the project when they recently spotted construction crews working at the site. The discovery led to protests, and on Monday, city officials confirmed their intent for the 10-acre vacant lot, located at 38th and California.

"The City of Chicago has been identifying viable sites across the city to construct base camps as an alternative to new arrivals sleeping outdoors, at O’Hare and on the floors of police district stations as winter fast approaches," the statement from the mayor’s office reads. "The site at 38th and California appears viable, and the intention is to construct temporary shelter at this site."

The city’s statement confirmed speculation that the site would become Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first "winterized base camp" – after neighbors noticed construction equipment there.  

"[Residents] were calling our office and you know, frankly, that’s how I was first notified," said Ald. Julia Ramirez (12th Ward). "I had reached out to the city and they verified that was the case and ever since then, I’ve been pushing the administration to be more open, more transparent about the details."

A heated protest last Thursday left Ramirez and an aide battered by protesters who accused her of backing the plan without getting the community’s input first.

Ramirez vehemently denied those accusations in a letter shared Sunday evening on "X," the platform formerly known as Twitter.

"The Mayor’s office did not consult with me or my office about their current plans to construct a temporary shelter — meant to house 1,500 people — at 38th & California," Ramirez asserted in the letter.

The site actually "may serve at least 2,000 family members with children," according to a planning document accompanying the mayor’s statement.

"Nobody asked us, nobody told us. We have a few thousand people here who signed their signature and said ‘no!’ We said ‘no!’ said one community member during Tuesday’s meeting.

As residents call for transparency, it’s something many felt they didn't get on Tuesday night, during a community meeting held at Kelly College Prep High School. With a line stretched down the block, the meeting quickly reached capacity and a crowd outside wasn’t allowed in.  

FOX 32 Chicago could hear the pounding on the doors from inside the auditorium, where meeting attendees began chanting, "let them in, let them in!"

During the meeting, officials offered details on the encampment. The city still needs to finish environmental testing, but says the site is suitable for pre-fabricated camp structures.

The encampment will be built by GardaWorld Federal Services and will be equipped with heating and air conditioning, laundry services, a mobile kitchen trailer, and makeshift restrooms and showers.

According to officials, the city has been assessing the site since at least last week and said they will "notify residents of the outcome of this final assessment and share further operations details prior to placing any new arrivals into the facilities."

The assessments included "tree trimming, removing dead trees, removing debris, grading site for hazardous conditions, illuminating areas around the site, repairing alley lighting, determining if there is existing water and sewer lines, performing various environmental assessments, and bringing water and sewer to the site."

Residents, on Tuesday, were divided on the plan. Some are calling for better living conditions for migrant families, while others say they're concerned over safety and don't want the encampment in the neighborhood.

"I don’t want any of my neighbors to have to live on the streets or in tents," one resident said.

"We have concerns about our students, our children who walk on this street every day, how do we ensure their safety," another community member said.

The owner of the site at 3708 S. California Ave. — the Barnacares Corp., according to the Cook County clerk’s database — could not be reached for comment.

City officials said the encampment will mainly be for families.

While a move-in date has yet to be announced, officials said that once the build starts, it could be ready in a matter of days.

After the remaining assessments are completed, the city will notify the contractor and it will take "at least 96 hours to get equipment/supplies to the site," according to the planning document.

Following that, "it will take several days to erect, outfit, and test systems before welcoming residents."

As of Tuesday, there were over 3,000 migrants awaiting shelter, according to the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications, but the pace of arrivals is expected to accelerate.

More than 19,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago since August 2022. Nearly 12,000 are living in city shelters, but thousands are still sleeping outside of police stations awaiting shelter placement, even as the cold approaches.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), Johnson’s City Council floor leader, cited those conditions in defending Johnson’s plan earlier Monday.

"Difficult decisions need to be made, and [Johnson’s] making those difficult decisions," Ramirez-Rosa said.

He also defended Ald. Julia Ramirez’s letter, saying she had every right to call out the "misinformation" that had been used against her.

Brighton Park residents have every right to protest the winterized base camp, he added, but the "xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment that we saw lead to violence" against Ramirez and her top aide last week was "totally unacceptable and has got to stop."

Meanwhile, in West Town, the community's response to the city's attempt to house 200 single, adult migrant men at a building in the 500 block of North Western Avenue had led to a change of plans. Their concerns included safety and the shelter's proximity to schools and parks.

Following a meeting earlier this month, Alderman Gilbert Villegas took those issues to the mayor's office and announced Tuesday that the shelter will now house migrant families.

"They brought up some valid concerns and I wanted to make sure as their representative that I relayed those to the mayor’s office and proposed a solution," said Villegas. "Given the assets that are in the area, a park down the block, two schools in the area and one of the schools being a little under-enrolled, I thought the assets that were there really lent to having families as occupants of that building."

Migrant families are set to move into the West Town shelter starting November 1st.

Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.