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Tensions flare between Chicago and White House over migrant crisis

Written by on October 3, 2023

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson confronted top White House officials late Sunday, demanding they take fast and concrete steps to address a migrant crisis they believe is about to reach a breaking point in the Windy City, according to two people on the call.

On a conference call they pushed for on short notice, the two Democratic leaders and aides laid out concerns about Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott ramping up the number of buses bringing migrants to the city, arguing that it could double the number of migrants there – currently more than 17,000 – just as temperatures begin to drop in a city famous for its harsh winters.

White House intergovernmental affairs director Tom Perez, who was on the call along with White House chief of staff Jeff Zients, urged Chicago to follow the “best practices” put in place in New York, where new efforts have launched to try to help migrants obtain work permits. But that did little to quell concerns held by Pritzker and Johnson, who also observed New York City and state officials grapple with the arrival of thousands of migrants.

On Monday, Pritzker sent a letter addressed to President Joe Biden demanding that the federal government take over a coordinated response at the border, according to a copy obtained by CNN.

The White House has come under increasing criticism from local officials across the country over the growing number of migrants at the US-Mexico border, stressing relationships with Democratic allies nationwide. Now, the feud over the migrant crisis is drawing in a governor who is a major political ally of the president and has been one of the most active boosters of his reelection campaign.

It’s also bubbling up in a city that will host next year’s Democratic convention – an event that people involved already believe will be a magnet for even more migrants to be sent to the city by Republican governors.

“That sort of pace is unsustainable for us even a week from now,” said one person close to the Pritzker administration. “They need to know we are at a breaking point.”

Johnson did not sign the letter but was briefed on its contents and is supportive of the effort. In a mark of how frustrated Johnson was with the White House position, he had his own one-on-one follow-up call with Perez to stress the need for the federal government to do more – and finished that conversation not feeling that help was coming, according to a person briefed.

A White House aide confirmed the Sunday call but referred to it as “a productive conversation” that is part of ongoing engagement, including $46 million in grants to Chicago and to Illinois to support migrants who have arrived.

Chicago saw a record number of migrant buses arrive last week, said Beatriz Ponce de Leon, the Deputy Mayor of Immigrant, Migrant and Refugee RightsMore than 2,900 migrants are living on the floors of police stations and Chicago’s airports awaiting placement in shelters.

The White House has grown increasingly worried about Chicago, realizing the expected influx of migrants in the city, according to a source familiar with discussions. Late last month, Perez met with Johnson over an hour to discuss the ongoing migrant situation in Chicago, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

The Department of Homeland Security has distributed millions of dollars to communities receiving migrants. Last week, the department announced an additional $12 million in funding, recognizing the financial strain on cities.

In his letter, Pritzker called for several additional specific measures, including a significant increase in logistical coordination and data collection for people after they arrive in the country, more financial support for states and cities to provide social services including housing, and waivers of the state’s applications for federal support like Medicaid.

“The federal government must stop abdicating responsibility once CBP releases migrants into the interior of the country. Your administration has the capacity, resources and legal recourse to do this right now,” Pritzker wrote.

As it stands, Pritzker added, the people of Illinois “are carrying out for our entire nation the obligations to care for the ‘huddled masses yearning to be free’ who are so desperately in need of assistance.”



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