Residents of predominantly black neighborhood reject migrant shelter: Chicago is already at ‘maximum capacity,’ says mayor

Outside a former South Side elementary school chosen to house immigrants coming to Chicago, a small group of protesters gathered Thursday to demand that their needs be met first.

The plan for the building now appears to be in limbo and its opening has been delayed, according to the area councilwoman.

Woodlawn residents said they opposed the transformation of the closed neighborhood Wadsworth Elementary School into temporary housing for immigrants who have been bused to Chicago. Opponents argued that their already struggling community cannot accept another influx of people in need.

“While I would love to help immigrants and everyone else, I would like to help my own first,” said Jean Clark, a longtime Woodlawn resident.

The buzz comes after the city confirmed last week that the old school would be redeveloped as a temporary shelter to help deal with the recent surge of immigrants, some 4,000 who have arrived in Chicago since August, most brought in by buses from Texas, as part of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial strategy to send immigrants to “sanctuary cities” controlled by Democratic leaders, rather than expend his state’s resources. About 1,500 remain in city care, Chicago officials said, though buses from border states no longer arrive regularly.

The city has decided to pause the Woodlawn shelter, Councilwoman Jeanette Taylor (D-20) reported to the Tribune Thursday night. A meeting between the mayor’s office, Taylor, voters and Chicago police will take place next week to determine the fate of the building.

Taylor said the neighborhood opposition should not be seen as anti-immigrant sentiment, but rather as local residents who feel disrespected by the city’s plan to repurpose a school the community had fought to keep open. While some residents are outright opposed to the shelter, others just want to make sure there is security in place to ensure the well-being of migrants in a community they don’t know.

Residents Jennifer Maddox (left) and Carlas Prince Gilbert (center) speak Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, about their opposition to the city's plan to welcome immigrants into the former James Wadsworth Elementary School in Woodlawn.

“This is not just about migrants; it’s about our Black and Latino solidarity,” Taylor said, adding that she works with the Spanish-speaking community and Latino constituents. “So this rhetoric is not about us against them, it is about a sanctuary for all. This should be us looking out for each other.”

The protesters said they were concerned that incoming immigrants would drain the few resources available to their community, and demanded that the mayor use shelter funds to create housing for the local homeless population or to stop violence and poverty.

“We don’t have the resources that they are investing in the building for migrants,” said Jennifer Maddox, a community leader who organized the demonstration. “So it’s unfair to say we’re going to provide all these resources for immigrants and ignore the people who are already here.”

Chicago and Illinois officials have fought to secure housing and other resources for these immigrants, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently asked the state for $54 million in additional emergency funding.

The city did not respond to inquiries about the status of plans to house immigrants in the former Wadsworth Building, 6420 S. University Ave. In a tweet Thursday, Lightfoot praised the Joe Biden administration’s announcement of that it will expand immigration enforcement at the southern border, while saying Chicago was “at full capacity.”

“As a welcoming city, Chicago has a responsibility to treat asylum seekers with dignity and respect, which we have done and will continue to do,” Lightfoot said. “However, like other cities in the country, we are at maximum capacity in housing and services. Therefore, it would be simply inhumane for cities and states to continue sending immigrants to Chicago.”

Maddox, who is running against Taylor for 20th Ward alderman, said he has not yet heard a security plan for the Woodlawn shelter or a timeline for how long it will stay open or whether there might be background checks on immigrants who would be housed there. .

One by one, the residents behind her echoed her concerns.

“We are very disappointed in Mayor Lightfoot’s decision to house these migrants in our community without our permission,” said one protester who declined to give his full name. “Please withdraw her decision to put migrants in our community; there’s plenty of room in Little Village for your people.”

Councilman Raymond Lopez (D-15), a frequent critic of Lightfoot, said he was concerned by such comments because, to him, it showed how black residents deal with asylum seekers. He said there was no need to fight over scraps when the city still has a stockpile of federal COVID-19 stimulus dollars to help both communities.

“We are unnecessarily causing tension and friction between African Americans and Latinos,” Lopez said. “It was painful to watch…to watch the amount of pain Woodlawn has been caused and the amount of ignorance he is creating. …Democratic cities are absolutely helping to prove the point that many of the big cities that say they are welcoming are welcoming in name only, as long as no one shows up.”

Ulysses Blakeley, one of the Woodlawn protesters, said migrants should be placed in areas where they can easily access resources to establish their new lives.

“It’s not that we don’t want to help immigrants,” Blakeley said. “I have immigrants in my family. I understand what the problems are. But you can’t unilaterally stifle a large, very moderate group of immigrants in a community without making a comprehensive plan to care for them.”

Baltazar Enríquez of the Little Village Community Council agreed with the concerns of the Woodlawn protesters, though he said some of their comments against the shelter are not welcome.

“(The city) is once again isolating (asylum seekers) in places where they can find little or no help,” Enriquez said in a phone interview.

The latest tension over the city’s new immigrants comes as state officials have outlined the second phase of their immigrant resettlement plan.

A letter sent to lawmakers by the Secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services, Grace Hou, says that until after January 15, newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers who are in hotels will be transferred to group housing facilities. temporary, which will have divided sleeping areas with up to 10 cribs and individual cabinets. They will receive three meals a day, have access to bathrooms, and can stay for up to 90 days. Family areas will be separate from single men and women.

A spokesman for Hou said up to three congregate housing shelters will be set up in Cook County. The Woodlawn proposal is not one of them but a pending shelter operated by the city.

“IDHS aims to empower asylum seekers to make informed decisions about their future for themselves, and the goal (of the new housing approach) is to support people on their journey to independence as quickly as possible,” Hou spokesman Patrick Laughlin wrote in a statement.

Chicago City Council Latino Caucus chair Councilman Gilbert Villegas (D-36) did not take issue with the latest plan, but criticized the mayor for what he sees as a lack of communication with councilmembers and residents, especially in a community like Woodlawn that still suffers from decades of disinvestment.

“These are situations that the border states are putting on us,” Villegas said of the group housing facility in Wadsworth. “It’s a bit rushed and awkward, but we’re trying to make it as human as possible. … I just wished the (Lightfoot) management had communicated more.”

Villegas also urged the federal government to “move a little faster” as cities like Chicago continue to scramble for resources. He said he invited officials from the US Department of Housing and Human Services to tour the city facilities in the coming weeks.

“There’s really no way to prepare for this,” Villegas said. “It’s like flying an airplane while you’re building it.”

Carlas Prince Gilbert, another Woodlawn resident, said she understands the importance of shelter and housing, but asked, “What is the plan to integrate them into the community?”

Tribune’s Gregory Pratt contributed.

Residents of predominantly black neighborhood reject migrant shelter: Chicago is already at ‘maximum capacity,’ says mayor