Brightly colored camping tents line the south wall outside the 12th District police station. A few asylum seekers are outside the tents; one is riding a blue Divvy bike across a wide, green field of grass in the foreground. The Sears/Willis Tower rises above the District on the right, where a large tree provides shade. A church steeple is in the background on the left. The sky is clear and blue.
Asylum seekers' tents outside of the 12th District station on September 18, 2023. Credit: Jim Daley

GardaWorld Federal Services, the company the City has hired to build and staff tent camps for asylum seekers, is a multinational security firm that has been contracted to run immigrant detention facilities in the U.S. and Canada. At one Canadian facility managed by the company, migrants went on hunger strike to protest conditions there, and one person at that facility later died. 

In May, the Tampa Bay Times reported that GardaWorld was one of three companies hired by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration to ship asylum seekers to politically “blue” states such as Massachusetts and California.

Update September 22, 2023: A statement GardaWorld released Thursday said “GardaWorld Federal Services’ contract with the Florida Division of Emergency Management remains inactivated, and GWFS was in no way involved with transportation of vulnerable populations in the state.” DeSantis’s relocation program was halted last year after migrants who said they were tricked into being flown to Martha’s Vineyard filed a federal lawsuit.

In Chicago, GardaWorld has provided armored car services to the CTA for cash pickups and staffed unarmed security guards to patrol L platforms and trains. A 2020 three-part series by the Tampa Bay Times reported that the company’s armored car division lost track of millions of dollars, took safety shortcuts that may have led to crashes, and was found to have “systematic breakdowns” in safety by the Department of Transportation.

GardaWorld’s $29 million contract to run Chicago’s tent camps is by far the largest the company has had with the City. The services in the contract include the setup of huge, heated tents with cots and footlockers for asylum seekers; providing showers, portable toilets, and laundry services; serving three meals a day; and waste removal. The company will also staff the facilities. According to the contract, GardaWorld “maintains a cadre of experienced security officers” who are drawn from the military (“Emphasis on combat, combat support and leadership positions”), law enforcement (“Emphasis on uniformed positions”), and security (“Extensive background in crisis or disaster-related security”).

A job description for a GardaWorld shelter base camp manager posted to the website SimplyHired listed no certifications or licensing requirements for the post, which had a salary range of $50,000 to $150,000. 

GardaWorld referred the Weekly’s questions to the mayor’s office. In a statement, a spokesperson for the mayor wrote:

“The first of Mayor Johnson’s priorities is to replace the police stations with shelters forming a base camp. Garda World was selected to build and operate the shelters housing new arrivals based on expediency because of the statewide master contract with the State of Illinois through the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) and the Illinois Department of Human Services. The state’s contract falls under the disaster proclamation for the asylum seeker mission.

“Using this contract enables the City to stand up the base camps expeditiously, and more quickly move new arrivals from Chicago Police Department district stations as the weather begins to change,” the statement continued. “As with all City-run shelters, there will be a system in place for individuals to file grievances should any issues arise.”

Johnson has consistently maintained a desire to stop housing people seeking asylum at police districts, a policy begun under his predecessor that has led to arrests and alleged mistreatment in some districts. As of Wednesday morning, there were 1,496 asylum seekers staying at police districts, 556 at O’Hare airport, and 19 at Midway airport.

“The volunteers have been frustrated with the level of access that we have been able to have to the existing shelters and are really concerned . . . if this is the direction the City is going,” said Annie Gomberg, the lead organizer for the 15th District Police Station Response Team (PSRT), a group of volunteers who provide food and services to asylum seekers staying there. She said most volunteers do not consider the camps to be a sustainable solution to housing asylum seekers, even temporarily, and called the tent-camp plan a “misallocation of resources.” 

Gomberg also raised issues about GardaWorld being awarded the contract. “The places this company has worked in—prisons and refugee camps and military situations—don’t really seem to be long-term housing solutions for unhoused populations,” she said. “And yet they’re being tasked with taking care of a really vulnerable population.”   

According to a report by Davi Sherman, a fellow at the American Friends Service Committee’s research center Investigate, GardaWorld oversaw the detention of immigrants held in centers in Vancouver, Quebec and Fort Bliss, Texas. In 2021, detainees went on hunger strike three times to protest “dire” conditions at the Vancouver facility. In January 2022, an immigrant died after being found in “medical distress” at a Canadian detention center operated by GardaWorld, the report said.

“Despite GardaWorld positioning itself as an aid provider that is experienced in operating long-term migrant sheltering, our findings make it clear that the company is in the business of profiting off of the detention and suffering of newcomers,” Sherman said in an email to the Weekly. “Across all of its business operations, time and again, GardaWorld has carried out serious human rights abuses. This is a company whose business practices are antithetical to Chicago’s ‘Welcoming City’ principles, and it should not be tasked with sheltering and caring for migrants.”

At Fort Bliss, GardaWorld staffed an emergency intake site beginning in March 2021 for unaccompanied children detained at the southern border, according to the AFSC report. An investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General found “operational challenges” that “[raised] concerns related to children’s safe and timely release” at the site. 

According to the Inspector General’s investigation, the “rushed opening” of that facility left children waiting weeks for updates from case managers, which caused “many children to experience distress, anxiety, and in some cases, panic attacks.” 

Staff also reported alleged acts of retaliation against whistleblowers that “may have created an environment in which staff . . . felt they were discouraged from raising issues about case management and child safety.”   

Erika Villegas, lead volunteer of the 8th District PSRT, said she is “personally concerned” that the City has said families will stay at the tent camps for two to four weeks, when families have been staying at police districts for months at a time. 

“We need to know what the plan is before people are stuck for six-plus months in tents,” Villegas said. “We also need a better understanding of what medical [services] will look like at the camp, and all employees, or the majority of them, need to speak Spanish.” According to the contract with the City, GardaWorld hires bilingual staff “[w]herever possible.”

Villegas said that companies hired to secure and house immigrants have been problematic in the past. Most “are inhumane [and] don’t treat them with dignity and respect,” she said. “And they are more similar to a detention center” than a shelter. 

Earlier this year, Denver’s mayor backed out of a contract with GardaWorld to run tent camps for asylum seekers after the AFSC and Denver City Council members raised concerns about the company’s transparency and human rights record. At a Denver City Council committee meeting in June, a spokesperson for the company also confirmed that GardaWorld had partnered with Palantir, a surveillance company that designs tech to apprehend and deport immigrants. 

“The company is very dishonest about their track record of doing this type of humanitarian work,” said Jennifer Piper, the interfaith organizing director for AFSC’s Denver immigrant rights program. She said AFSC found “a lack of transparency and human rights abuses across all of their business operations.”

According to Piper, GardaWorld made statements to Denver public officials that indicated they were already sheltering people in Chicago, El Paso, and New York City. “And it turned out that they were not sheltering migrants in any of those cities,” she said. 

Denver ultimately opted to partner with nonprofits and community members to house asylum seekers instead. (Last week, Axios reported that Denver has used federal funds to bus migrants to Chicago.) The Tribune reported today that Mayor Johnson’s deputy mayor of immigrant, migrant and refugee rights, Beatriz Ponce de León, raised concerns about Denver’s rejection of the company’s contract in a June email. 

Alderperson Andre Vasquez, the chair of the City Council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, has called for the City to acquire and rehabilitate existing buildings to create temporary shelters that could be repurposed in the future and benefit communities in the long run, instead of using temporary tents. In an interview with the Weekly, Vasquez reiterated that call.

“I fundamentally have a problem with giving the same folks who are being paid to detain migrants . . . funds to build these base camps,” Vasquez added. “I’ve got concerns about the base camps in general, [and] even larger concerns about who the money may be going to when I believe it could be better spent focusing on buildings and acquisition.”

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Jim Daley is an investigative journalist and senior editor at the Weekly.

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