As a first-time elected official, I have had a lot of “firsts” in the last 3 years. Many have been truly enjoyable — from the campaign platform that embodies my values to advocating for key programs at the board table, including affordability initiatives and elevating language access needs in our diverse community.
However, not all firsts have been positive. Recently, I was publicly accused of making statements that are full of erroneous assumptions and misinformation about an issue that is probably one of the most important to me as a trustee and as a Latina — caring for the Venezuelan migrant families who were brought to our community a few weeks ago.
The claims made against me are intentionally vague, not supported by facts and completely without merit. My views and decisions at the board table are supported by information presented by the village manager and staff.
In an email dated Nov. 1, the village manager advised the board that community activists began moving migrant families to the Oak Park Police Station close to midnight on Oct. 31. This was done when village hall was closed, without coordination with the village and without a plan for their immediate or long-term care.
The board was later advised, in a memo dated Nov. 6, that migrants who were relocated to Oak Park lost their opportunity to gain housing through Chicago’s shelter and welfare plan. This was highly concerning since Oak Park did not have shelter plans when the families were moved here. I was further concerned that plans for additional resources administered by Chicago will not include migrants relocated to Oak Park since Chicago’s resources are managed through a waiting list that relies on the census of migrants residing at Chicago police stations. The impact to families and individuals who are already highly vulnerable could be devastating as every missed opportunity might delay stable permanent housing, employment, and a chance to begin a new life.
It’s important to note that, prior to Nov. 1, the board unanimously approved $550,000 through a combination of grants and village funds to work with established community partners, coordinating services for transitional housing, food, wrap-around case management services, legal aid and crisis services to address the trauma and stress often experienced by migrants.
However, when community activists moved migrants to Oak Park without adequate notice or planning, these funds had to shift dramatically. The approved funds were reallocated to emergency services for the new arrivals. On Nov. 2, the village manager [Kevin Jackson] requested, and the board approved, an emergency disaster order to reassign staff duties and suspend standard purchasing requirements. In essence, moving migrants to Oak Park required the village to shift from a planned effort to crisis management.
As the expiration of the emergency order looms, the board will have to determine next steps. Figuring out responsible support should be centered on financial impact, long-term goals, and a commitment to helping migrants in Oak Park understand available resources.
As I write this, there is a proposal to the 2024 budget for over $1M in additional funds for migrant support through March 2024. This includes converting the last of our American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to lost revenue. In addition, several new staff positions will have to be funded. This proposal belies the affordability efforts I have promoted at the board table and puts an increased burden on Oak Park taxpayers who could benefit from ARPA funding through federally-approved programming. The budget proposal is partnered with an extension of the emergency disaster order.
The board has been challenged with the question, “What will the board do to continue to support migrant families and individuals?” I contend that the question should be, “What are the long-term goals of Oak Park support?” Stringing emergency orders together does not create a responsible, sustainable plan.
Lastly, it is imperative that migrant individuals and families understand the realities of continued support in Oak Park and how that impacts access to opportunities through larger municipalities like Chicago, which has spent an estimated $65M on migrant support and has recently received an additional $160M from the state. Further, the city has confirmed one of my earlier concerns, that migrants residing in Oak Park are not eligible for alloted Chicago resources.
While my personal desire to help migrant families starts with empathy and compassion based on my own family’s migration experience, I must also uphold my fiduciary duty as trustee and consider the needs of Oak Park residents who I am committed to serving.
As I consider all of the relevant information on this issue, I am reminded of a line from my campaign video: “There are no easy answers, only good decisions.” This line encapsulates my commitment to weighing compassion, budget realities, and the futures of our migrant neighbors and the Oak Park community at large.
I also encourage all members of the community to listen to the board meetings, contribute their input and help find responsible solutions.
Lucia Robinson is an Oak Park village trustee.