Republican-bused migrants throw a wrench into Democrats’ convention planning

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CHICAGO — Operatives in charge of the Democratic convention in Chicago next year are starting to plan for an unconventional type of election year problem: a flood of migrants bussed mostly from Texas to the host city.

The city has seen fluctuating numbers of busloads of migrants, adding to the difficulty of planning for arrivals. Last week, 28 busloads landed in Chicago, but as many as 60 have arrived in one week. The mayor’s office told POLITICO it’s seen a noticeable increase of migrants since Chicago was announced as the host city for the Democratic National Convention.

Now, however, the topic is coming up in meetings about convention planning, according to two people familiar with the matter. The mayor’s office is in the process of identifying occasions to build tent camps to accommodate the influx. The goal is to get the new arrivals off the floors of police stations and other public spaces before winter comes.

Officials are also incorporating concerns over migrants into their security planning for the convention. And the governor’s office has begun a public pleading and shaming campaign with the Biden administration to do more to stem migrant flows to the border and open up resources for states and municipalities to deal with migrant buses being sent to them.

Speaking to reporters recently, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker said he is “confident” that local officials will be able to handle whatever spate of migrants arrive in the leadup to the convention — as long as they get sufficient federal support.

“We will manage it but we need to have the city and the state working together. We need the federal government at the table here,” he said during a discussion put on by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.

Pritzker recently told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “someone needs to work in Texas with these border politicians to have them stop sending people only to blue cities and blue states.”

That convention planners are having to strategize around a flow of migrants at all shows the degree to which migrants have become both a headache for Democrats in major cities and a national political issue.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office said that it’s trying to get a handle on the migrant situation now so it won’t be a problem when the Democratic Party’s luminaries gather at the United Center to formally nominate a presidential nominee.

The administration sent a delegation to Texas border towns last week to better understand the process of moving migrants across the country.

“I don’t know if it’s a concern or just an additional challenge that we know that we’re going to have to deal with,” Johnson’s chief of staff Richard Guidice told POLITICO. He is tasked with helping to manage the behind-the-scenes logistical planning for the convention.

“Optically you certainly want to show Chicago in its best light,” said Guidice. “As part of the process, you identify all things that potentially could happen in any large scale event.”

The challenge for Chicago is trying to find inhabitable space. It costs money to remove asbestos in empty structures and make them livable, for example. Operations to get asylum-seekers off the floors of the airport and police stations before Chicago’s notoriously frigid winter is challenging, too. And neither the city nor the state budgets have the surpluses needed.

“It’s expensive,” said Jason Lee, the mayor’s chief adviser. “But there is potentially a pathway to being able to manage the influx.”

The confluence of incoming migrants just as the convention is revving up could also be “a major security issue” as well, added Lee. Extra bodies around creates a headache for security officials who need clear pathways for high-profile individuals.

Officials with the convention host committee in Chicago and the Democratic National Convention Committee largely dismissed the idea that the bussing of migrants could cause some sort of disruption or embarrassment.

“The convention team supports the efforts of city and state officials working around the clock to ensure that migrants being sent to Chicago are treated with the dignity and respect that all human beings deserve,” the convention planners said in a joint statement.

The party has sought to position itself as welcoming of immigrants. And Chicago, run by Democratic officials, also wants to be a welcoming city — inside a welcoming state.

But Republicans have argued that such posturing is largely bluster and that, presented with the migrant numbers they face on a daily basis, blue states would change their tune. Chicago has seen more than 18,000 asylum seekers since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott started sending buses to Chicago in August 2022, according to Johnson’s administration.

And frustration is mounting. Pritzker blamed Republican governors for sending “people to our state like cargo in a dehumanizing attempt to score political points.” It was part of a letter the Democratic governor wrote to President Joe Biden that called for more help in managing asylum seekers coming to Chicago.

His comment was a jab at Abbott, who has sent migrants to Chicago as well as New York City and Washington, D.C., over the past year.

Andrew Mahaleris, a spokesperson for Abbott, acknowledged that Texas has increased the number of migrants being sent to Illinois and other states. “Texas has ramped up our busing mission to help our local partners in Eagle Pass and other border towns, and we are prepared to provide as many buses as necessary to provide relief to our overrun and overwhelmed border communities,” he said in a statement to POLITICO.

Other cities — including Denver and New York — are sending asylum seekers to Illinois, too, often because the new arrivals request to go there.

After sending his letter, Pritzker said he got a quick response from White House officials. Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, which is managing the humanitarian effort, visited Chicago recently to see first-hand the situation that has migrants sleeping on the floors of police stations and Chicago O’Hare International Airport — where Democratic delegates will be arriving when they come for the convention next year.

The DHS team “is working with Chicago officials to assess the current migrant situation and identify ways that the city and the federal government can improve efficiencies and maximize resources,” said a person who didn’t have authority to be named.

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