Chicago voters won’t get chance to weigh in on sanctuary city status, City Council decides

Mayor Brandon Johnson and his City Council allies on Thursday used a parliamentary maneuver to squelch an advisory referendum that would have allowed Chicago voters to weigh in on whether Chicago should remain a sanctuary city.

A special City Council meeting called to consider the issue was over in less than an hour and never got off the ground.

Instead, Johnson ruled that the proposed referendum championed by Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) needed a two-thirds vote, or 33 alderpersons, to suspend the rules so that it could be considered because it had not been approved by the Rules Committee.

The Council voted 31-16 not to suspend the rules.

Beale’s proposed referendum would have asked voters in the March 19 primary: "Should the city of Chicago limit its designation as a sanctuary city by placing spending limits on its public funding?"

Before Thursday’s meeting adjourned, Beale did not hold back in lambasting his colleagues.

"It is a shame that you all are scared. What are you scared of? To let the people have a voice? What are you scared of — the truth?" Beale asked. "Are we afraid that the people are going to tell us that we are spending money frivolously? … Are we afraid that the people are going to tell us that we are headed in the wrong direction?"

"I’m all for taking care of people. I am sympathetic as well," Beale added. "However, I’m more sympathetic for the people in my community who have been paying taxes their entire life, can’t get a furnace, can’t get a roof, can’t get a hot water heater, can’t get a back porch. And my seniors are still starving for resources."

Beale said there is "no conscionable way" that the Johnson administration should have spent nearly $1 million to build a winterized base camp on a contaminated industrial site in the Brighton Park neighborhood, only to have "the whole thing blown up" after Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency declared the site at 38th Street and California Avenue unsafe.

"I hope you all sleep good tonight knowing that you all continued to turn your backs on the people who are paying taxes in this city," Beale said.

For weeks, Beale has been trying to put an advisory referendum on the March ballot asking voters to weigh in on an ongoing migrant crisis that has strained the city budget, exacerbated historic political tensions between Black and Hispanic residents, and dominated the first seven months of Johnson’s administration.

Efforts to stymie Beale’s efforts led to a special meeting last month in which bullying allegations were lodged against Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th). The allegations forced Ramirez-Rosa to resign as Johnson’s Council floor leader and Zoning Committee chair.

A week later a Rules Committee meeting was called to consider a revised, softer version of Beale’s sanctuary city question. That effort failed during a rowdy meeting that adjourned after council members were shouted down by an angry crowd that Rules Committee Chair Michelle Harris (8th) ordered forcibly removed.

Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said the Welcoming City Ordinance that originated with Mayor Harold Washington has "nothing to do with whether or how the city provides shelter or care" to asylum-seekers and repealing it will "do nothing to stop the flow of buses."

"At best, these moves … are the result of confusion and misdirection. At worst, they’re cynical ploys that are feeding on fear and resentment. … They play into the hands of Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump," Tsao told alderpersons. "If we fall into this trap, shame on us."

After the special meeting, a coalition of community organizers and Council members celebrated the Council's vote, calling it a victory for immigrant communities.

"We will be on the migrant mission, we will support our undocumented and migrant community, and we will continue to invest in our Black communities," said Ald. Jessie Fuentes (26th). "The Trump tactics of the right of sowing division between our communities will end. And our vote today was an indication that there is a City Council that will not allow those tactics to thrive here."

Speakers at the meeting explain their immigration experiences, saying it’s a matter of safety

Public speakers received applause and cheers during the meeting on Thursday. Immigration rights activists said if Chicago’s sanctuary city status is repealed, it will hurt the undocumented residents already living here, and it will not stem the tide of new arrivals coming from the southern border. 

Lauren Lawrence, a woman who described herself as a Chicago native, born and raised in the city, said she witnessed a "transition as if a lot of people are not important here." 

"I'm not for the sanctuary city, and the reason why I'm not for the sanctuary city is because people have waited years to come in here legally," she said. "Not just transported on these buses, dropped off in our neighborhood…" 

Chicago has received more than 20,000 migrants over the last 15 months, needing shelter and resources. Some City Council members propose that the voters decide if Chicago should be a welcoming city, to limit funding for migrants. However, others say doing that will only cause more problems.

Ald. Jessie Fuentes (26th) said reversing Chicago's sanctuary status would cause undocumented immigrants to live in fear.

"We cannot live in a city in which families live in fear," Fuentes said. "We cannot live in a city where parents are afraid to be separated from their children. More importantly, the families that have been separated should be granted access to come back and reunite with their children."

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) said he would hold accountable government leaders who he called hypocrites.

"We need to defend our people, our families because we are one community here, and we have to live in the spirit that the Statue of Liberty represents," Vasquez said.

The council's decision to adjourn without considering the sanctuary status referendum vote drew condemnation from Ald. Anthony Beale, who demanded to know whether Mayor Brandon Johnson and councilors were afraid that city voters would tell them "the truth" about funding decisions regarding the migrant influx. 

Activists are calling for President Joe Biden to take the lead in providing work permits and legal protections for migrants, so they can begin to provide for themselves.

Fox News, FOX 32 Chicago and Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.