Oak Park decided to bolster its migrants’ assistance with $500,000 in unspent federal funds and by extending its emergency declaration for 60 days. 

The original proposal before the board in the freewheeling meeting asked for $1 million through March to shelter migrants through the cold and wet winter months.

In a 4 to 3 vote, they approved a “friendly amendment” to provide the emergency money through February 6, 2024. 

Trustees Ravi Parakkat, Lucia Robinson and Cory Wesley dissented.

The proposal, which sparked controversy among trustees, comes on top of the $550,000 trustees approved last month to house migrants amid an October snowstorm. Officials at the time decided to temporarily shelter more than 160 asylum-seeking migrants to address immediate needs in an emergency declaration effective through Dec. 4.

About 162 migrants in Oak Park are supported by the village and another roughly 80 more are supported by area churches. Since Nov. 7, about 50 individuals have been staying at West Cook YMCA. The Carleton Hotel is housing migrants in 13 rooms, officials reported.

The new allocation comes from unspent American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, funding and not from local taxes. According to the Government Finance Officers Association, a Chicago-based public finance trade association, the pandemic-era ARPA municipal funds can be used in many ways, including for infrastructure projects and other COVID–related expenditures. It cannot be used to offset taxes or for pension funds.

Village officials indicated the funds could be used for this effort. The $500,000 for the emergency situation does not include the long-term cost of aiding migrants. It maintains the current level of housing and supplemental services, estimated at about $312,000 per month, they said.

Deputy Village Manager Lisa Shelley explained the village is scheduled to meet next with Cook County, which has set aside millions of dollars for new arrivals. The City of Chicago reported they have no funds available for Oak Park.

Shelley acknowledged that because of this, the village’s “investment” in migrant assistance could be at risk because the lack of funds from alternative sources may not be guaranteed. For example, she said, it’s not yet clear Cook County would reimburse them.

Because of this, she added, village officials recommended using ARPA funds to continue to assist migrants sheltering in Oak Park.

In the 6.5-hour meeting, which drew a large audience later in the night when the migrants issue appeared on the agenda, trustees split over the timeframe and the amount spent from the ARPA funds.

Wesley, a holdout, said he supported the idea of volunteers taking over the responsibility of helping migrants transition. He said the allocation of $1 million was an unsustainable solution, a statement that prompted audience members to interrupt him to disagree with his stance. Scaman asked them to hold their comments.

Wesley said this decision was an unprecedented move for the village government and sets a precedent for the village. He said he believes the roughly $2,000 per month he calculated spent per migrant under the original proposal is an inequitable expenditure for asylum seekers, in contrast with the $500 to $1,000 with universal basic income programs the nation is experimenting with.

“I wanted to draw the line between what we thought was an acceptable response in one case and what is an acceptable response in another,” he said.

The meeting also drew unprecedented speakers. Two asylum-seekers spoke during public comments to share their stories and ask the trustees for support. 

One 60-year-old migrant, Jose Leandro, in Oak Park who said he fled Colombia to escape violence and terrorism, said he wants to live here legally, be a productive worker and take care of his family. He explained he wants a better life not only for himself but for others he knows are suffering. 

Angel Suarez, a 21-year-old migrant with a 4-year-old daughter, echoed the mans’ desire to work and help provide not only for his family but for the community.

Residents largely expressed their support for the additional spending. One local speaker said some migrants have traveled more than 3,000 miles to be here and urged the trustees to give continued aid to those asylum-seekers.

Another, however, questioned why the village considers migrant aid an all-or-nothing endeavor. She encouraged them to consider additional options to help the asylum-seekers without taking away support from other communities.

“I’m concerned with the ‘we have to do it all or we cannot do it at all’ support with migrants,” she said.

Resident Tasha Kohl agreed the allocation of $1 million would create infrastructure to help migrants, proving the community cares about one another and lives up to its values. She encouraged the trustees to face this issue head on.

“This has to be a collective effort,” she said. 

Reverend Colin Knapp of Pilgrim Congregational Church and president of Community of Congregations, asked the board to create an independent task force of community experts dedicated to assisting migrants in the short and long term.

“It’s an opportunity to model a new way of community building that does not lay the responsibility solely on the village,” he said.

Resident Carollina Song said Oak Park couldn’t afford to play “icicle roulette” in a “rat-infested park” with migrants who suffered while using festering public toilets.

Others, however, added they were against the decision. One commenter asked in written statements about how this decision would affect the village’s general fund and worried about the attraction of additional migrants in the future. Another urged the board to vote against allocating funds because the migrants have not paid taxes to support the community.

“You need to prioritize the people who pay taxes in Oak Park,” they wrote.

Trustee Brian Straw said he considered every migrant a member of Oak Park and equally represented among established residents. He said the crisis response is necessary, and he expressed support for an independent task force to help asylum seekers.

“There is a right to freedom of movement in this country,” he said. “We don’t get to dictate where [the migrants] go.”

Trustee Susan Buchanan said she wanted quicker solutions, disagreeing with the emergency order implementation through March, and favored a transition plan for migrants only up to 60 days instead. She supported the $1 million allocation of funds, but said she believed volunteers can do more for asylum seekers directly than the village can.

“I don’t want to see our responsibility to the residents of Oak Park go unaddressed,” she said.

Village President Vicki Scaman said migrants might be temporarily housed by the village, but are not in the village’s care. She emphasized the migrants can make their own decisions and do not necessarily have to find permanent housing in Oak Park, but the village has a duty to help while the asylum seekers are here.

In Wednesday Journal opinion pieces, Parakkat and Robinson said they disagreed with the move. Parakkat expressed concerns that allocating this aid will harm migrants more than it will help them. Officials from the City of Chicago explained migrants who leave Chicago will lose their place on the waiting list for more permanent, stable housing.

“Our ability to provide jobs and independence is non-existent,” Parakkat said during the meeting. “Our ability to provide housing and stability seems like a stretch.”

Robinson echoed Parakkat’s concerns, stating that despite her empathy for the migrants due to her own family’s migration experience, she is concerned that these recent decisions fail to plan for long-term care.

Robinson said she believes reallocating the $1 million for migrant support will burden local taxpayers and the emergency declaration is not a sustainable plan long term.

“There are not unlimited resources financially, nor staff-wise,” she said during the meeting.

They maintained those positions at the board meeting.

The State of Illinois has offered $160 million to Chicago for migrant aid and support, an amount much greater than what Oak Park can offer. Asylum-seekers in Oak Park will not be eligible for any Chicago programs. If they returned to Chicago, assuming they met all other requirements, they would be placed at the end of the waiting list. Individuals with medical needs, however, may receive aid more quickly.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Note Nov. 21: This story has been updated to reflect the names of several speakers at the meeting.

Correction Nov. 21: Because of a communication error, the name of resident Tasha Kohl was spelled incorrectly. Her name has been updated in the story. We regret the error.

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