By Juan Perez Jr., Tribune reporter
12:00 a.m. CDT, July 26, 2014
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration is set to aggressively expand the amount of shelter available to children apprehended at the southern U.S. border, with plans to house as many as 1,000 additional young immigrants in Chicago by the end of this year.
The mayor’s office also plans to tap the city’s legal community to build what it described as a “broad-based pro bono campaign” to counsel the city’s share of unauthorized immigrant children, a proposal hatched as federal authorities work to boost the government’s capacity to shelter and care for the unprecedented number of children arriving from Latin America.
“The influx of unaccompanied child migrants is a growing humanitarian crisis that we can no longer ignore,” Emanuel said in a statement.
“While we have our own challenges at home, we cannot turn our backs on children that are fleeing dangerous conditions,” the mayor said. “We will do our part to ensure that these children are given access to services and treated fairly and humanely.”
Funding for the facilities — and for the children’s education, health care, food, security and social services — would come from the federal government, Emanuel’s administration said. The effort’s estimated cost isn’t yet known, a mayoral aide said.
The precise number and locations of sites to be retrofitted as shelters is yet to be determined. But the facilities would augment nine existing shelters in the Chicago area that, according to officials with the National Immigrant Justice Center, already hold roughly 500 beds for immigrant children brought here by the federal government.
Emanuel’s local plans for young border crossers thrusts the former political operative and White House chief of staff into a controversial federal effort to determine what to do with more than 57,000 immigrant children who have crossed the U.S. border during the past nine months.
The federal government also has approached other cities to evaluate their potential to provide a broad range of facilities and temporary shelters, drawing fire from some who oppose shelters being located in their communities. In Illinois, Sen. Mark Kirk has called for criminal background checks on any immigrant minors brought to the U.S. and supports legislation that would speed deportation.
Mayoral aides said the administration discussed housing more immigrants in Chicago after federal officials approached the city earlier this month about the possibility of finding a 1,000-bed facility.
Talks accelerated in recent weeks, officials said, and included representatives from the U.S. General Services Administration, the federal departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services and the White House.
Michael Negron, Emanuel’s policy chief, said the administration recently examined potential sites while learning more about how existing shelters operate.
“How are those children being served, who’s delivering the services, what are the key issues to be aware of, what are the questions that we should be asking and looking into as we talk to the federal government?” Negron said.
Immigrant children have long been housed in the Chicago area in shelters that are typically repurposed buildings outfitted with dormlike living quarters. The children can be held there for weeks before being released to family members or sponsors to await immigration proceedings. The majority leave the Chicago area once they’re released, a National Immigrant Justice Center official said.
And just recently, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that it would seek federal approval to shelter a yet-to-be-determined share of children who have recently breached the country’s southern border. A church-sponsored application to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is due in early August.
According to information provided by the mayor’s office, government specifications for a single, 1,000-bed facility require at least 90,000 square feet of unoccupied space that has state and local zoning approval for habitation. Such a facility would also need sufficient heating, ventilation and potable water. The city’s preference, however, is to spread beds across multiple sites for young immigrants.
“As we’ve learned more about this, I think in our view it makes more sense to have multiple facilities so that you have smaller groups of children who receive more attention,” Negron said, adding that management challenges could occur if too many children were placed at one large site.
“But ultimately, the federal government is going to be the entity that funds and manages the site. So it’s an ongoing conversation.”
The federal government would look to secure a lease for at least one year, the mayor’s office said. Once the shelter locations are selected, Emanuel’s office said the government would try to rehabilitate them in time to receive new immigrants by the end of the year.
The administration’s current focus is on sites that are already equipped for residential use. For example, Negron said, some existing shelters were once used as hotels, dormitories or convents. Ideally, selected sites would be multilevel buildings with amenities such as kitchens and nearby recreational facilities.
“So we think that it’d be better to find locations that are already residential or have been residential in the past and wouldn’t need a tremendous amount of work in order to get them ready … and also not be as conspicuous,” Negron said. “Because ultimately we want to make sure that the children are secure; the more visible the site, the more risk there could be extra security risk to the children.”