Migrant tent city company accused of controversial ties

By Chicago 6 Min Read

GardaWorld Federal Services has ties all over — from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ migrant removal program to allegations of mistreating migrant children at the border and labor trafficking at U.S. military bases overseas.

The Virginia-based company’s latest tie is to the city of Chicago, where they have a $29.3 million agreement with the city to build Mayor Brandon Johnson’s giant tent cities, or “winterized base camps” for the thousands of migrants currently staying at police stations and airports.

The deal, signed Sept. 12, has been condemned by officials and advocates who said investing in Chicago infrastructure and organizations would be better.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), chair of the City Council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said hiring GardaWorld is “not a good look” for Chicago.

“We’re in a crisis having to make quick decisions,” Vasquez said, noting Johnson “inherited this mess.” But, “I still don’t believe this to be the path we need to go forward with as a city.”

The company is tied to DeSantis’ program of bussing or flying migrants out of Florida, according to the Tampa Bay Times, which Vasquez called a potential conflict of interest.

It gets worse “when you also hear that they actually detained migrants in other places,” Vasquez said. “I don’t believe that to be humane.”

The company is among those allegedly involved in mistreating migrant children at the border in a 2022 report by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General, according to research by the American Friends Service Committee.

They’re also allegedly tied to a migrant labor trafficking scheme at U.S. military bases, according to reports by NBC News

“Once you’ve moved past this moment, what do you have to show for it,” Vasquez said. “You’re just gonna fold up the tents? Then what? We can do better.”

The wide-ranging allegations prompted Denver to nix a contract with the company in July. 

Denver considered hiring them at their city shelters but never brought the proposal to a vote after advocates flagged the company’s alleged history.

Jason Lee, a senior adviser to Mayor Brandon Johnson, defended the mayor’s decision to piggyback onto an existing state procurement and said the tents were necessary to keep up with the increasing pace of arrivals.

“If you’re going to provide these pre-fab structures, this is the vendor that exists in the country that people use,” Lee said.

He dismissed the controversies around the company’s handling of migrants around the country, including in governor and Republican presidential candidate DeSantis’ state of Florida and said he has “never seen reporting as uneven” as some of the stories raising questions about the company just because Denver decided not to work with GardaWorld.

“You can’t write about Denver and their decision without noting the fact that they don’t take care of any asylum seekers,” he said. “They don’t take care of anyone. They put people on buses, trains and planes out of their cities.”

The city could quickly strike a deal with GardaWorld because the state already had contracts with the company to care for asylum seekers dating back to last year.

“The Mayor of Chicago had no choice but to take what’s available,” said Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th). “But what’s available is unacceptable.”

“The state bears responsibility for hiring such a company,” he said. “I don’t think we should allow this to be a business, playing with people’s lives is unconscionable.”

He said the city was looking into establishing community safety committees at shelters to ensure both the decent treatment of migrants in shelters and safety of the surrounding communities.

The city was even looking into altering the contract, he said, “so Chicagoans can help these people in need and not these companies with horrible track records around helping immigrants.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

More coverage of migrants in Chicago

More coverage of migrants in Chicago

Long waits for work visas

  • Asylum-seekers’ long wait for work permits: ‘It feels terrible, especially because I’m used to working’
  • Chicago Democrats are pushing Biden to speed up work permits for migrants. Will they succeed?
  • A year since the first buses of migrants arrived in Chicago, the journey to asylum for Vannessa Olivera, others is just beginning

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s tent city plans

  • Chicago signs $29.3 million contract to build ‘winterized base camps’ for migrants
  • Far South Side residents divided on migrant camp landing on their turf
  • Johnson’s tent city plan legal, ‘but that doesn’t make it a good idea’
  • How other cities are responding to migrant crisis

How to pay

  • City Council OKs spending another $34.5 million on burgeoning migrant crisis
  • Worst-case scenario: Chicago budget gap could reach $1.9 billion by 2026
  • Chicago faces 2024 budget shortfall of $538 million — more than a third of it tied to migrant crisis

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