Governor cancels Chicago tent camp construction

Citing environmental concerns at the site, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the plan designed to house up to 2,000 migrants will be scrapped.

Published Dec. 5, 2023 • Updated Dec. 6, 2023

Jennifer Goodman Lead Editor

Workers erect a tent frame at the now-canceled tent encampment for migrants in the Brighton Park neighborhood, on Nov. 29, 2023.Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Newscom

UPDATE: Dec. 6, 2023: Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has canceled plans for construction of a migrant camp in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, citing environmental concerns at the site.

“My administration is committed to keeping asylum seekers safe as we work to help them achieve independence,” Pritzker said in a statement Tuesday. “We will not proceed with housing families on a site where serious environmental concerns are still present.”

Earlier in the week, the Illinois EPA concluded that more testing was needed to ensure the site was safe.

“The remediations implemented thus far do not satisfy IEPA standards and are insufficient. At a minimum, an expanded engineered barrier between contaminated soil and human exposure would need to be installed to address exposure concerns,” the governor’s office said in the press release. “Further investigation might also identify additional contamination that would require additional remediation.”

Original story continues below.

Dive Brief:

  • Illinois officials have paused construction of a $29 million tent camp for migrants in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood after a report released Friday found evidence of potentially toxic chemicals in the site’s soil.
  • The facility is designed to temporarily house as many as 2,000 migrants as part of the city’s efforts to reduce the number of people sleeping at police stations and in other public facilities.
  • The 800-page environmental assessment report released by the city revealed that at least some of the site’s soil is contaminated with mercury and other toxic compounds, according to NBC Chicago. A Cook County judge on Monday ordered the city to keep residents informed before work on the site resumes, according to ABC 7.

Dive Insight:

Montreal-based security services firm GardaWorld started construction last week on the temporary, tent-like structures in Brighton Park, under a $29 million contract with the city, according to NBC Chicago, which also said that the site was once used as a zinc smelter and was part of a railyard.

In 2021, GardaWorld worked with the federal government to create a controversial center at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, for thousands of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the border, according to The Denver Post.

As winter sets in, Chicago is facing a large homeless problem, due in part to an influx of asylum seekers bused there at regular intervals by the state of Texas, according to the city. While most of them are from Venezuela, they are also from countries such as Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

Since August 2022, more than 20,000 men, women and children who are seeking asylum have arrived in Chicago. State officials including Gov. J.B. Pritzker have advocated for the housing site in Brighton Park, but neighborhood residents and some local politicians have opposed its construction.

At a public meeting last month, City Alderman Raymond Lopez questioned the selection of the lot for the camp, according to WGN.

“This location is wrong. It’s a toxic brownfield — a dumping ground for the railroad zinc in the dirt and we’re now going to asphalt it and put 2,000 people on top?” Lopez said. “There’s a reason why there’s nothing there.”

Brownfields — defined as any site with enough potential industrial contamination to have complicated its redevelopment — present a significant opportunity for contractors and developers in the face of pressures like the housing crisis, climate change and land scarcity, according to a recent report from Law 360.

Nevertheless, properties with contaminated soil pose complex challenges regarding liability, public policy, climate change, environmental justice, community engagement and financing, the report said.