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Chicago City Council approves $51 million immigrant aid package

The arrival of thousands of immigrants over the last few months has sparked citywide debates over race, history and public spending.

CHICAGO (CN) — Following a heated debate, the Chicago City Council voted 34-13 on Wednesday to approve a $51 million budget amendment earmarked for helping over 10,000 recent immigrants to the city.

The money, which the city budget office said has been pulled from a 2021 budget surplus, is a stopgap slated to last through the end of June. City officials said it will fund the procurement of additional supplies, shelter and support staff to handle Chicago's ongoing immigration crisis.

"The city appreciates the continued support and understanding from the community as we navigate the challenges of this crisis. By working together, we can extend a compassionate hand to those most in need and demonstrate the values of our welcoming city," newly elected progressive Mayor Brandon Johnson said in a statement on the budget amendment.

Many of the new arrivals from Latin America were sent to Chicago from the U.S.-Mexico border by order of far-right GOP Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Chicago is officially a sanctuary city, meaning police cannot detain any individual, nor can the city deny them services, based on their immigration status.

Abbott began sending immigrants to Chicago in August 2022 as part of his ongoing political feuds with numerous figures in the Democratic Party, including former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. If Abbott's goal was to cause civil and political upset in Democratic bastions, he has at least partially succeeded.

The recent immigrants' arrival in the Windy City has reheated long-simmering debates over race and public spending, particularly regarding investment in low-income, majority-Black neighborhoods on Chicago's South Side. Some Black city leaders and community organizers have rankled that Chicago and larger Illinois is spending millions in support of immigrants, while their own communities have seemingly been left to fend for themselves.

In addition to the $51 million Chicago alderpersons approved Wednesday, the Illinois Legislature approved a state budget last Saturday that dedicates $42.5 million to aiding immigrants and asylum-seekers in the state. Democratic Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said he intends to sign it.

Funding disputes aside, Chicago is also currently housing thousands of immigrants in temporary shelters scattered across the city, including in majority-Black neighborhoods on the South Side. Residents of the majority-Black South Shore community even filed a lawsuit against the city on May 10 that aims to bar new arrivals from being housed in a local former high school building.

"Black men - ya'll use us to fill prisons and graveyards... I don't see none of y'all fighting for that, yet you expect for us to fight for and support you all," Tyrone Muhammed, founder of the Black activist group Ex-cons for Community and Social Change, said while interrupting a May 24 press conference on the immigration crisis held by several Latino city alderpersons.

Those same racial tensions flared at the Wednesday City Council meeting that preceded the vote, with both alderpersons and members of the public expressing their discontent over what they saw as as the city's imbalance of priorities under the new Johnson administration.

"How dare this mayor and City Council have the guts to give migrants $51 million dollars?" asked public speaker Andre Smith at the beginning of the meeting. "I demand you to have the same passion and urgency to pass a city of Chicago reparations ordinance. And also to give us an office for Black Americans just like [the Office of] New Americans. We didn't have the luxury or the opportunity to cross the border. We didn't have the privilege to cross the border. We came over here... in the bottom of ships."

"It's not right and it's not fair," agreed alderman David Moore, who represents Chicago's 17th Ward on the South Side. Moore denied that his opposition to the aid package had anything to do with Black vs. Latino racial animus, instead framing it as concern that longtime Chicago residents of all races were being passed over in favor of the recent immigrants.

"Loving my residents don't mean I hate anyone else. I have a diverse population and I hear those same people - Black, white, Latino, everybody different races - saying 'what about us?'" Moore said. "So people keep saying there's enough to go around... So if there's enough to go around, then let's pass an ordinance where we see the enough."

Other alderpersons who supported the ordinance rebutted that helping immigrants in no way harms Black Chicagoans - that in fact there is a great deal of overlap between the two groups, with many Latin American immigrants identifying as Black and/or having African descent themselves. Mutually disadvantaged groups aiding each other, some alderpersons argued, was how all such groups could advance together.

"If we do things to support our community, if we do what we're supposed to to bring us up, everyone benefits. Period. It's just what it is," said alderwoman Maria Hadden, a self-identified queer Black feminist whose North Side 49th Ward is among the most racially diverse in the city.

"Hurt people don't hurt other hurt people," agreed South Side alderwoman Jeanette Taylor, one of the most outspoken members of Chicago's socialist and Black caucuses, whose 20th Ward is home to one of the city's large migrant housing shelters.

Taylor voted for the immigrant aid package despite her own complaints that the city has systemically ignored and abused its Black population.

"What I want us Black folks to do... is have this same energy and come up with an agenda for Black Chicago. Because right now we're all over the place. All we know is we don't want them to have $51 million dollars," Taylor said, through tears. "Who the hell is them? It's us. That's the shit that got us here from the get-go. This pitting us against each other."

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