Johnson administration defends contract with private defense firm to prop up migrant ‘base camps’

The administration says it’s looking into whether it can staff the tent camps with local organizations once they are built.

Migrant tents
The contract GardaWorld has with the city includes this photo as an example of what tents could look like to house migrants in Chicago. Courtesy of city of Chicago
Migrant tents
The contract GardaWorld has with the city includes this photo as an example of what tents could look like to house migrants in Chicago. Courtesy of city of Chicago

Johnson administration defends contract with private defense firm to prop up migrant ‘base camps’

The administration says it’s looking into whether it can staff the tent camps with local organizations once they are built.

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Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration is defending its deal with a controversial security firm to prop up so-called “base camps” for migrants, but said they are looking into whether the city can provide its own staffing at shelters once those camps are built.

Earlier this month, the city inked a one-year, up to $29.4 million contract with the Virginia-based firm GardaWorld Federal Services, and its subsidiary Aegis Defense Services, to provide “turn-key emergency logistics” at massive tent camps the administration plans to open throughout the city.

The private security firm has been the subject of allegations of abusive labor practices and treatment of workers. Past allegations and lack of experience in sheltering migrants contributed to Denver deciding not to move forward with hiring the firm to shelter migrants, The Denver Post reported.

Chicago’s contract with GardaWorld stipulates the company could stand up and staff locations that can house between 250 to 1,400 people, and provide meals, staffing, and security.

A GardaWorld spokeswoman directed questions about Chicago’s contract to the city.

In a brief interview with WBEZ, Johnson’s deputy chief of staff Cristina Pacione-Zayas said the city had limited options as it seeks to move people out of police stations as quickly as possible.

“There’s not many companies that have this type of capability of literally standing up prefabricated structures driving 50 foot poles, creating flooring, and then staffing 24/7,” Pacione-Zayas said.

Pacione-Zayas said the city is using a so-called “reference contract” that mirrors one at the state level, allowing the city to avoid the red tape and time that a new contract would require.

In an overview of the services the firm could provide, GardaWorld said it could outfit locations with yurts that could house up to 12 cots, or “ClearSpan fabric” tents outdoors that could have thousands of square feet of space. Structures would be heated to approximately 70 degrees, with the ability to be cooled to 72 degrees, according to the scope of services.

Camps could have “morale, welfare and recreation” areas where people could read, charge a cell phone or fill out paperwork, in addition to “sanitation tents” that would house restrooms and showers and kitchens that would provide three meals a day. Examples of food ranged from hard boiled eggs, to chicken fajitas and roast beef sandwiches.

But Pacione-Zayas said the process of choosing which GardaWorld offerings the city will take advantage of is ongoing, and it’s not clear which services the city can or cannot opt out of.

First and foremost, the city is evaluating whether it needs to use GardaWorld’s staffing services at all — or whether it can award contracts to local community organizations instead to staff the tents.

Currently, the city uses a national staffing firm to oversee existing brick-and-mortar shelters, but has issued a request for proposals to replace that firm with local organizations.

Pacione-Zayas said the city has received “pretty significant interest” in that opportunity, which could allow them to award contracts for existing shelters as well as the forthcoming tents.

“If we have enough interest of local community-based staffing for all of our shelters plus these tents, we will see if we can plug in to the tents,” she said. “We’re just making sure that we have the baseline staffing period. Usually with GardaWorld they offer the staffing. We need to see if we can negotiate — if we have enough interest of community based and social service agencies — to be able to staff up those tents.”

The firm outlined a broad array of staffing possibilities, from covering transportation of people in 12-passenger vans to providing bilingual child care and mental health screenings.The cost per day for two interpreters is roughly $2,170, with a paramedic or registered nurse quoted at roughly $3,190, according to the company’s cost proposal. The firm also outlined its security staff, which it recruits from areas like law enforcement and the military with “emphasis on combat, combat support and leadership positions.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, who serves as Johnson’s floor leader, said using local community organizations rather than GardaWorld staff will be imperative, and that if there aren’t enough RFP applicants to do so, the city should look for alternatives.

“If we’re not able to identify a company to provide staffing quickly enough, then I do think that we should look to other options given GardaWorld’s record here,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

Asked whether the city was aware of the company’s past controversies, Pacione-Zayas said Johnson’s Deputy Mayor for Immigrant, Migrant and Refugee Rights Beatriz Ponce de León flagged those concerns with the state when it was in the process of negotiating a contract with the company.

A spokesperson for Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker said the state addressed concerns around “cultural competency” by having weekly meetings with GardaWorld, city representatives and Little Village community partners to ensure a “human services lens.” The spokesperson added they are planning to have “a culturally competent community provider onsite to assist with operations as well.”

Pacione-Zayas said the state assured city officials they were comfortable with the company after “operations agreements and making sure that they understand our expectations for the execution of services.”

The firm was one of three Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration was considering to relocate migrants, The Tampa Bay Times reported in June.

An emergency contract was signed with GardaWorld Federal Services in May to facilitate the Florida Division of Emergency Management’s implementation of a program to transport migrants to other states.

In a cover letter included in the contract, David Watson, the firm’s senior vice president of contracts, boasted a staff of more than 6,000 ready to support services for base camps, transportation, security, medical services and more. Watson said the firm “provided culturally sensitive services” to unaccompanied children in El Paso and San Antonio in Texas. The rest of GardaWorld’s proposal is heavily redacted.

A GardaWorld spokeswoman said the contract awarded by the Florida Division of Emergency Management “was never activated.”

“GWFS provided no services related to the populations in question in Florida,” the spokeswoman said.

The Florida contract is in place through June 2025. A spokesperson for the Florida Division of Emergency Management did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward, said the fact that the same firm that was hired by Florida to transport migrants is now going to profit from housing migrants in Chicago is “really a slap in the face to this whole process and really shows that there needs to be some really candid discussions around immigration at the federal level.”

“It seems like this firm is just being forced down our throats right now as one of the only providers when, in fact, I think there’s additional providers that are out there,” Villegas said, later adding: “I felt that a lot of the not for profit providers that are here locally, or even regionally, could have helped accommodate, especially when there’s funding.”

While setting up base camps to quickly decompress police stations is “prudent” as more buses of asylum seekers continue to arrive, Villegas said he still has questions about how migrant children living at the camps will get to school, what access to transportation will look like and how the city will generate revenue to pay for ongoing costs.

Pacione-Zayas said the city still doesn’t have a firm number of how many tents there will be, but said they are “currently identifying locations and starting to figure out, you know, what makes sense to sequence out first, second, and possibly beyond.”

The set-up and tear down of indoor hard-sided camps in Cook County could range from $264,830 to house 200-400 people to $344,839 for 1,201-1,400 people, according to a cost proposal. Monthly costs “to provide all services in proposal” for the sites ranged from $1.8 to $5.9 million depending on size of the site.

Outdoor soft-sided lodging options are even pricier, with the largest site quoted at $595,518 to set up and tear down with a monthly operating cost of $7.2 million.

WBEZ’s Mariah Woelfel and Tessa Weinberg cover Chicago city government and politics. WBEZ’s Dave McKinney contributed to this story.