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Illinois comptroller rolls out new portal tracking spending on migrants

When Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza this month launched a new online portal to track state spending on asylum seekers, state residents gained a window onto a major piece of the local government spending pie, with the city of Chicago and Cook County also spending millions on the migrant crisis.

As of Feb. 27, the new portal had tracked more than $31.2 million in state spending on migrants since June 2023. The money went to translation services, alarm system providers and disaster response experts, among other uses. 

“We can’t wait for the federal government,” Mendoza told The Bond Buyer. “You can’t have children die of hypothermia on your watch… We’re not going to have people freeze to death out there and we certainly don’t want to see more children die. But we don’t want to let the federal government off the hook.”

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza speaks at a public hearing. The comptroller on Feb. 20 rolled out a new online portal to track state spending on asylum seekers.

Office of the Illinois Comptroller

Two children have died in Illinois as a result of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to send busloads of migrants to Chicago and surrounding towns. In August 2023, a 3-year-old Venezuelan girl fell sick while en route from Brownsville, Texas to Chicago; she was pronounced dead at an Illinois hospital. In December 2023, a 5-year-old Venezuelan boy died at a temporary shelter in the Pilsen neighborhood of sepsis and strep throat, with COVID-19, adenovirus and rhinovirus also contributing.

More than 30,800 migrants have arrived in the Chicago area since August 2022, the Texas governor said in a January press release

Mendoza argued that “it’s cruel to send people here during the very coldest months of the year,” but she also acknowledged that the illegal immigration issue “has been completely politicized” and “it’s a very real issue for Texas and Arizona.”

“It should not fall upon states, who already have very lean budgets and can’t print money, to bear the costs of this,” she added. “We’re fronting the money, is how we should be thinking about this… I hope that our portal can essentially serve as a receipt to the federal government.”

Earlier this month, a bipartisan immigration compromise failed in the Senate after its Republican backers walked away from the table.

Shortly thereafter, rating agencies started to voice reservations about Chicago’s ability to cope with the migrant influx. On Feb. 13, S&P Global Ratings released a comment on strained budgets in Chicago, Denver and New York City due to migrant arrivals. It predicted among other things that, absent support from the state and the federal government, Chicago’s bottom line would take a significant hit.

“How the city manages these pressures, particularly when faced with high costs for its underfunded pension programs, could have a longer-term effect on its credit quality,” the S&P analysts wrote.

And on Feb. 22, S&P lowered the outlook on Chicago’s general obligation bonds to stable from positive. It affirmed its BBB-plus rating on the bonds.

Fitch Ratings already assigns Chicago a BBB-plus rating, outlook stable. Kroll Bond Rating Agency gives Chicago’s general obligation debt an A rating, outlook positive. And Moody’s Investors Service rates Chicago Baa3, outlook positive.

“We anticipate significant funding is going to be outlaid” on the migrant crisis, Mendoza said. “I think the best way to have accountability is to be financially aware. Even with household budgets, if you’re not seeing the outputs, it becomes so much easier to spend beyond your means.”

The blueprint for the new asylum seekers portal was the COVID-19 spending portal that Mendoza rolled out at the height of the pandemic. That spending tracker grew out of a newspaper story Mendoza read about how the city of Chicago paid one nurse $20,000 for one week’s worth of work, Mendoza recalled.

“When I saw that, I thought, ‘Oh good God, this had better not happen at the state level,'” she said. “It shouldn’t take the press to FOIA these things, we should put them out there ourselves. The best way to prevent an egregious misuse of money like this is to show people that we’re spending it as best as possible.”

Mendoza hopes Chicago and Cook County will roll out their own spending trackers, she said, because among other things, telling the story of how each dollar is spent gives them the chance to go back to the federal government later and ask to be reimbursed. It also staunches distrust in government, as she saw amid all the COVID-19 spending.

“Even in the darkest days of the COVID pandemic, we never sacrificed transparency,” she said. “And transparency is important because it breeds accountability… When I took office, I took on a $17 billion backlog of unpaid bills. We were well on our way to paying back that backlog of unpaid bills when the pandemic hit… I tell people, you can track how everything was spent. We’re super transparent. We want to make sure that we never give people the opportunity to create their own set of facts.”

It’s the people’s money, she added, and the costs of a humanitarian crisis shouldn’t break state and local governments’ budgets and credit ratings. 

“We want our money back from the federal government,” Mendoza said. “There’s a lot of distrust in government. I can only do my part; even if it takes some time, we can restore people’s trust.”

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