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Brighton Park’s Immigration Legacy

Brighton Park has a rich history of welcoming immigrants, a tradition that spans generations. Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood has been profoundly shaped by successive waves of immigrants. Decades ago, a substantial influx of Polish immigrants was so significant that it drew the attention of Pope John Paul II in the 1970s. As the Polish and Lithuanian families gradually moved away in the 1990s, Mexican Americans took their place, establishing a vibrant bilingual community. In recent years, Brighton Park has seen the emergence of a thriving Chinese American community, coinciding with the city’s growing Asian population.

Despite this storied history of immigration, the neighborhood is currently grappling with a divisive issue: the proposal to convert an empty lot into a winterized tent complex capable of housing over 2,000 migrants, many of whom are from Venezuela.

Challenges for Liberal Cities

Brighton Park’s dilemma is not unique. Cities like Chicago, New York City, and Denver have been grappling with a surge in migrants arriving from border states, straining social services and testing the limits of their sanctuary city commitments. In Brighton Park, where immigration has long been an integral part of the community, the challenge is particularly pronounced.

As the heavy machinery rolled onto the 10-acre site designated for the proposed encampment, many residents learned about the plan. Subsequently, they took to the streets to protest, expressed their dissent on social media, and participated in heated informational meetings at local high school auditoriums. The situation has taken an unexpected turn, with some residents voicing concerns and discontent.

Divided Opinions

Demonstrations at the Brighton Park site have, at times, grown contentious, catching some by surprise. The neighborhood, once considered a haven for immigrants, is now split on the issue.

Local City Council member Julia M. Ramirez, a progressive Democrat with roots in Mexico, found herself in the midst of the controversy. She did not propose any sites for migrant shelters to the new mayor, Brandon Johnson, and is reserving judgment on the encampment’s merits. However, she sees potential in Brighton Park for migrants to thrive. The neighborhood’s experienced educators can teach English as a second language, Venezuelans can conduct business in Spanish, and the community is filled with empathetic neighbors who understand the challenges of being a newcomer.

A Diverse Community

Brighton Park boasts a diverse population, with about 40 percent of residents born outside the United States. Additionally, more than 70 percent of residents speak Spanish. The community has a shared narrative of leaving behind their homeland to start anew, transcending racial and ethnic boundaries.

Nonetheless, some residents view the planned encampment as a severe threat to a neighborhood where they have invested years of effort to establish their lives. Despite facing challenges such as lower median income, industrial pollution, and concerns about violent crime, Brighton Park is a bustling area with thriving commercial districts, beautiful church buildings, and green residential blocks.

Community Concerns

Situated about six miles southwest of downtown Chicago, Brighton Park encompasses a mix of residential areas, industrial sites, and trucking yards. The neighborhood’s residents have expressed concerns about the proposed tent city. Ricardo Palacios, a retiree living near the site, fears that the community, especially those living in close proximity, won’t be able to sleep peacefully if it opens. Beverly Chan, a nail technician originally from China, worries about sanitation and potential increases in crime, questioning the wisdom of housing 2,000 people in tents.

City officials, however, argue that there is no time to build houses, especially with subfreezing temperatures looming. Barring any environmental setbacks, they intend to proceed with the tent encampment.

Overwhelmed by Influx

Chicago has been overwhelmed by a surge of migrants arriving from border states in recent months. This situation has put the city’s “sanctuary city” and “welcoming state” commitments to the test. Chicago and Illinois leaders have quarreled over financial responsibility, while criticizing the Biden administration for not providing more assistance. Currently, nearly 12,000 migrants reside in city shelters, with around 3,300 more sleeping in various public spaces. Despite the challenges, more buses continue to arrive.

The Proposed Tent City

The proposed tent city, often referred to as a refugee camp, was not the first choice for anyone. However, officials describe it as the best available option to prevent a further crisis. Families would reside in climate-controlled tents with access to meals and showers. Some residents are in favor of the proposal, highlighting their own experiences as immigrants and the warm welcome they received. Others remain opposed, expressing concerns about the neighborhood, the conditions in the tents, and the lack of information from the mayor’s office.

While the voices of recent migrants have not yet been prominent in Brighton Park, a high school student named Julieth, who arrived from Colombia about a year ago, spoke at a public meeting. She expressed her dismay at the insinuations that migrants are criminals and emphasized the importance of empathy and understanding in the community.

In conclusion, Brighton Park faces a complex and contentious issue as it grapples with the prospect of housing migrants in winterized tents. The neighborhood’s rich history of immigration, diverse population, and deep community ties make this debate particularly challenging and emotionally charged. As Brighton Park navigates these uncharted waters, it remains to be seen how this issue will ultimately be resolved.


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