Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) announced Monday that the city is halting plans to house migrants at Amundsen Park while Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office scouts alternative sites.
In an email to constituents, the alderman wrote that Mayor Brandon Johnson’s plan to close the park fieldhouse “has been placed on hold,” and the city is looking at the multi-tenant industrial building at 1900 N. Austin Ave., directly north of the park.
That didn’t sway an ad hoc group of long-time Austin community activists and local residents said they are prepared to camp out in front of Amundsen Park around the clock – even as they await the final decision.
The group includes former Chicago Board of Education member and long-time Austin education activist Dwayne Truss, Police District Council members Angelica Green and Deondre Rutues, Westside NAACP president Karl Brinson and former 29th Ward candidates Zerlina Smith-Members and Corey Dooley.
During the rally Monday morning, they said weren’t prepared to give up without a fight because the park was important to the community because it hosted a crucial programs for seniors and kids.
Shortly after Taliaferro’s announcement, Green said that the group was still camped out there, and said they intended to stay until they see the staff reopening the park after the Columbus Day closure, or until Johnson himself confirms the announcement.
“People still want to make sure that they’ll get to keep Amundsen Park,” she said.
The announcement that the city was considering using the park fieldhouse as a shelter for asylum-seekers from Central and South American countries triggered immediate backlash and led Taliaferro to call a meeting early this month. The alderman, whose ward includes Amundsen Park and another major Austin park, Columbus Park, has told Austin Weekly News that he didn’t believe that parks should be used to shelter asylum-seekers, especially in tents. During last week’s meeting, multiple residents said that they didn’t have anything against asylum seekers per se, but they didn’t want to lose access to the park programs for seniors and kids, which either take place indoors or rely on access to locker rooms.
In his email, Taliaferro wrote that Johnson’s team “already had conversations” with the building’s owner.
“Our mayor has clearly heard you,” he wrote. “I sincerely appreciate that we have come together as a community, to fight for a common interest.”
During the Monday morning rally, the group planned to stay in front of the park district in shifts, and discussed the possibility of bringing in tents. Truss said that they were considering legal action, but declined to elaborate further, saying that they didn’t want to tip their hands. The group also said they would “flood the phone lines” with calls to Johnson, local state legislators, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Attorney General Kwame Raoul. Several said that they were prepared to get arrested, if necessary, just to make the point.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been busing asylum-seekers to major cities, including Chicago, since August 2022. So far, Texas has bused 8,700 migrants to Chicago, according to Abbott’s office. The city previously housed asylum-seekers at police stations, but lately, it started using fieldhouses, such as Broadway Armory fieldhouse in the North Side’s Edgewater neighborhood.
Truss said that he was working toward putting a referendum on the ballot asking if Chicagoans want the city’s Sanctuary City status revoked. The asylum-seekers entered United States legally as part of an asylum application process. They are free to live in the country while their application is pending, but only Venezuelan asylum-seekers are currently eligible for work permits.
“What we have here is our sanctuary, our community asset,” Truss added.
Smith-Members said that she was prepared to chain herself to the doors, if necessary, asking the crowds to “bring your chains and locks.”
“We need people to bring grills,” she added. “We’re going to do it, we’re going to do our own tent city.”
Green, who sits on the council for the 25th District, which includes Amundsen Park, said that she would serve as the liaison between the protesters and the local police.
Rutues, who works as an engagement specialist for Chicago Neighborhood Policing Initiative on the West Side, said that he was worried about a shelter in Amundsen Park drawing police resources away from other parts of Austin.
Linda Johnson, of Austin, said she’s been organizing local senior citizens to protest the city’s actions.
“You got seniors who are coming to the park every day for fellowship, and yet you don’t have any concern that you’re shutting down their programs,” she said. “We’re not having it. Put the plan on hold.”
Patrick Harris is the president of the Windy City Dolphins youth football league, which operates out of Amundsen Park and draws most of its players from Austin and other parts of the 29th Ward. He said that while the league teams play outdoors, they use the indoor gym for practice, and cheerleaders use the fieldhouse locker rooms to change. He also worried about players and spectators not being able to use fieldhouse restrooms and the response from parents.
Nikki Powell, of Austin, said her son used to play in Windy City Dolphins when he was younger, adding that she was willing to camp out in front of the fieldhouse.
“I’m always for helping people, but we don’t want [the migrants] coming here and taking away the things that kids have here,” she said. “I believe this park is a jewel for this community.”
Powell was among the several people who suggested that migrants should be moved to some other building. Some, including Rutues, suggested the currently abandoned Zenith TV and radio manufacturing building on Dickens Avenue across the railroad tracks from Amundsen Park – further from the park than the 1900 N. Austin site.
Johnson said that she believes putting asylum seekers in parks doesn’t address the problem, since the buses are still coming.
“It’s one park, and before you know it, it will be all parks, and then, you’ll be barricaded in your own house, and that’s discrimination,” she said.
Editor’s note: This version of the story did not make it to the Oct. 11 print edition because it broke after our deadline. Please check back for more.