As a victim-services advocate in Chicago, Zerlina Smith-Members struggles every day to obtain scarce resources and shelter space for victims of violence in the city.
As a black mother and activist on Chicago’s West Side, she can’t help but notice the poor-performing schools, the bad health outcomes, the food deserts, the homelessness, the high taxes, the gangs, and the illegal guns that plague her community.
“It’s just a lot, and it’s overwhelming,” Smith-Members said of the challenges.
That is why Smith-Members, an independent Democrat, is frustrated by the response of her party’s far-left leaders to the influx of migrants who have flooded the city over the last year and a half. In a desire to be “welcoming,” the state under Governor J. B. Pritzker has directed $640 million towards sheltering, feeding, and caring for the migrants, while the city of Chicago under mayor Brandon Johnson has paid out at least $138 million, according to media reports.
To Smith-Members, that is money that should be spent to benefit needy Chicagoans. Instead, she said, “we have people who have come her illegally, who have jumped the line.”
Smith-Members, a leader in the Chicago-Cook County Coalition for Humane Migration Management, is among the growing chorus of Chicago residents, neighborhood activists, and business owners — many of them left-wingers and Democrats — who are calling foul over the city’s and the state’s handling of the ongoing migration crisis. Neighborhood leaders are increasingly angry over having their parks and community centers taken away and turned into shelters. Business leaders have complained about soaring cases of shoplifting as well as the deteriorating conditions outside some shelters that are driving their customers away.
The migrant crisis has also exposed sharp divides in Chicago’s Democratic base, with the progressive response to the crisis infuriating some more traditional Democratic groups. Black Democrats such as Smith-Members have been some of the most vocal critics.
“The immigration crisis is going to flip the state of Illinois purple,” Smith-Members said.
While Democratic leaders and mainstream news outlets have pointed the blame at Texas’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, accusing him of orchestrating the crisis by busing tens of thousands of migrants to northern sanctuary cities, several Chicagoans from across the city who spoke to National Review said they aren’t buying it.
“It’s a Biden thing. It’s a Pritzker thing. It’s a Brandon Johnson thing. They wanted sanctuary cities,” said Smith-Members, who is running for Johnson’s former seat on the Cook County commission. “It’s not Abbott’s fault, because he didn’t ask for it. We asked for it.”
Dr. Lora Chamberlain, a peace activist on Chicago’s North Side, said she doesn’t blame Abbott “one little bit” for busing migrants to cities that previously said they would welcome them.
“What state could possibly take in millions of refugees?” said Chamberlain, who is angry at city leaders for converting her neighborhood’s beloved community center into a migrant shelter.
Chicago has been a sanctuary city since the mid 1980s. Days after Pritzker was sworn in as governor in 2019, during Donald Trump’s presidency, he signed an executive order saying that immigrants and asylum-seekers are “critical to the fabric of our state” and help to “make Illinois a great place to live.” He later sent a letter to then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo saying Illinois would “proudly consent” to helping refugees and that he was “committed to ensuring that Illinois is a welcoming state, especially for refugees and those seeking asylum,” according to a report in the Chicago Tribune.