Editorial: ‘Yurt’ cities run by private security, possibly coming to a neighborhood near you. What could go wrong?

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Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker reportedly leaned hard on President Joe Biden’s administration to make it possible for new migrants from Venezuela, several thousand of whom are sheltering in Chicago, to get authorization to work legally. Good job, governor. That’s a very positive development.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Wednesday extended and redesignated Venezuela for temporary protected status (TPS) for 18 months. The change follows a review of the country’s conditions, federal officials said, although we all know that the conditions in Chicago and New York (not so good) were the more urgent and relevant factors. The decision means that some 472,000 Venezuelans who were in the U.S. on or before July 31 now will be eligible for TPS and thus are eligible for work permits; some 243,000 Venezuelans who were here by March 2021 already have the status.

This is a Band-Aid, of course, and far from a permanent solution to the nation’s immigration crisis, created by federal fear, inertia and inaction.

The situation in these and other cities are hardly a boon to Biden’s reelection prospects. The migrant situation is crushing big-city budgets and causing neighborhood stress. And a cynical interpretation of the review is that something had to be done urgently to prevent the fallout, especially since Pritzker and other Democratic governors are waiting in the wings with presidential campaigns ready to go, in the event Biden’s planned campaign for a second term should stumble.

That said, sometimes good things happen through expedient motives. The Venezuelans are escaping a terrible situation at home, and they deserve the stabilizing chance to get out and work and take care of what in many cases are large, young families. And, of course, some sectors of the economy in Chicago are short of workers. So that’s a win-win.

But if the federal government can act fast when it comes to that part of the crisis, why not in the equally pressing matter of finding suitable housing for these folks until they get on their economic feet?

Also on Wednesday, the Tribune reported that Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson has signed a $29 million contract with GardaWorld Federal Services, a private security firm, to oversee a tent city for migrants.

Unsurprisingly, the contract was signed without a news conference — the Tribune had to dig out the information — and, as we write, at least, there has been no announcement as to the million-dollar question: Where will this tent city be located?

We suspect some in the Johnson administration would like to see it plunked right in the middle of Lincoln Park, for equity reasons, but wherever it lands, those who live nearby likely will have something to say about it and understandably so. That many humans crammed together will have an impact. We’re unfamiliar with the administration’s plan: Are they just going to pick some spots and spring it on the city? Or will there be a transparent process? How many yurts in one place will there be? Is it better to have everyone together or in scores of places? All valid questions.

The word “tent,” of course, sets off a lot of questions, most notably as to how such temporary structures will fare if we happen to get several feet of snow followed by subzero temperatures in January or February, which would not be atypical for a Chicago winter. But the contract with GardaWorld Federal Services specifies “yurt”-like structures.

If you’re wondering, “yurt,” derived from an old Turkic word, has evolved to mean high-tech coverings over a typically metal frame, allowing for climate control inside and potentially such things as running water and electrical outlets, although if these yurts are not connected to the electric grid, water and, above all, sewer system, they’re a far cry from an apartment. Especially in winter.

We’ve been critical of migrants staying in police stations and at O’Hare International Airport, because those places are lousy for a family to live in and are supposed to fill other vital functions for Chicagoans. So we sympathize with the mayor’s predicament: Coming up with emergency housing for thousands of people is far from easy, and wherever it lands, there will be complaints. But tough decisions like that, openly made and transparently communicated, are part of the job of being mayor.

But GardaWorld, a private entity, cashing in? And $29 million in taxpayer money (and counting, no doubt)? Where is the federal government here? The Federal Emergency Management Agency is greatly respected for its prowess and expertise when it comes to emergency housing. Why is FEMA not putting up these cities and shouldering the cost? This is, after all, an emergency born of a failed federal responsibility.

Notably, Denver backed off from hiring GardaWorld to accommodate migrants this past summer, after some nonprofit groups with expertise in the area charged that the company lacked expertise for the situation and also had a checkered past when it came to taking care of migrants. The Denver Post has reported that little information has been forthcoming about what the company actually does. And the Denver mayor apparently was queasy enough to make a different choice. (GardaWorld told the Denver City Council that it was “a nonpartisan company committed to providing services and solutions for its clients with the utmost respect for human rights and human dignity.”)

GardaWorld is a massive global operation with 120,000 employees. What will happen in Chicago will mostly depend on the quality of the people GardaWorld hires for that $29 million, how well they are compensated and how much oversight the Johnson administration affords them. We wonder how many of these details have been thought through.

We’re also struck by the silence to date of the kinds of nonprofits in Chicago with real expertise in this area.

Had Lori Lightfoot as mayor hired a private security company for $29 million to care for migrants in yurts, we suspect there would have been hell to pay from the left. Many of those groups are now inside the Johnson administration.

We hope they’ve not lost the courage to speak up if they see something they don’t think is right.