Mayor Brandon Johnson quietly signs $29 million deal with private security firm as part of Chicago’s planned migrant ‘base camps’

CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration recently moved forward with plans to place new asylum-seekers in massive tent camps around the city, signing a nearly $30 million contract with a private security firm at the center of controversies related to its handling of asylum-seekers elsewhere in the U.S.

GardaWorld Federal Services, and its subsidiary Aegis Defense Services, quietly sealed the one-year deal with the city on Sept. 12. The city contract calls for GardaWorld to provide “emergency logistics management and operation services that will set up shelter ... and other necessary services (also called ‘a base camp’ or ‘solution’)” for the new arrivals.”

The company signed a similar $125 million contract with the state of Illinois late last year, though so far very little has been paid out. Earlier this month, Johnson’s team noted the city’s migrant expenditures could reach $302 million by the end of this year when factoring in costs of the new tent encampment sites.

The $29.4 million GardaWorld agreement with the city came less than a week after Johnson announced he intended to move about 1,600 migrants living inside Chicago police stations to a network of newly erected large tents peppered throughout the city before winter.

The mayor has yet to reveal details about the timeline or locations of the camps, but the contract reveals some specifics about the tents it would assemble. The soft-material “yurt” structures would fit 12 cots each and would be outfitted with fire extinguishers and portable restrooms while a makeshift kitchen would be set up nearby. Questions remain, however, on heating capabilities during the unforgiving Chicago winter.

The security company, which says on its website it has “responded to all major U.S. natural disasters, declared emergencies, and military conflicts since 2002,” has also drawn criticism for several immigration-related matters. Those dealings encompass projects and proposals in Denver, Texas, Florida and Canada related to migrants — spurring internal concerns from members of Johnson’s own administration two months earlier.

“Sharing this article about Denver’s rejection of GaurdaWorld (sic). We’d like to discuss possible implications here,” the city’s deputy mayor for immigration Beatriz Ponce de León wrote in a July 24 email with state officials that the Chicago Tribune obtained via a records request. She then linked to an article in the Denver Post about a $40 million migrant-related contract with GardaWorld getting scuttled.

Officials with Johnson’s administration did not immediately return requests for comment.

Representatives with GardaWorld declined to comment Wednesday and deferred questions on the contract to the city of Chicago.

Controversies in Denver, border states

Earlier this summer, Denver’s City Council was set to vote on a planned $40 million contract with GardaWorld, but its mayor withdrew the plan in July after heavy backlash from local nonprofit leaders, the Denver Post reported. Those critics questioned the company’s experience with sheltering migrants as well as its emphasis on “military-style operations,” according to the Post.

GardaWorld was founded in Canada under the name Trans-Quebec Security Inc. in 1995, according to its website, before expanding internationally amid a spate of acquisitions. Regarding the American division based in McLean, Virginia, the company’s website boasts of being “a partner of choice to the U.S. Department of State, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Health and Human Services, (and) the Intelligence Community” for services including security, medical and response logistics.

In the past decade, the company has been contracted for immigration-related services that include detention, drawing alarm from immigration advocates who followed the situation in Denver.

Jennifer Piper, project director at the Colorado branch of the progressive, Philadelphia-based American Friends Service Committee, said her organization found that GardaWorld has contracted with the U.S. federal government to provide migrant services at the border in Texas, too. She and others helped sink the Denver contract, and she said that GardaWorld should not be trusted to do work in Chicago either.

“They’re a company that is clearly not ethical ... and they don’t have a good track record of caring for vulnerable people,” Piper said. “So if I were a Chicago resident, I would be very concerned about the treatment and the conditions for people inside shelters run by GardaWorld.”

GardaWorld did not respond to questions on its reported involvement with migrant shelters or detention.

The firm also was one of three finalists in Florida for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plans to relaunch a program relocating migrants to Democratic-led cities, according to the Tampa Bay Times. After that arrangement with the administration of the 2024 GOP presidential candidate was detailed in Denver ahead of the planned $40 million contract vote, GardaWorld executives sent a letter to Denver city leaders promising to halt any Florida agreements were they to secure the Denver contract, according to 9news.

Most of Chicago’s 14,000 migrants who have arrived to seek asylum since August 2022 have come from Texas, some under the direction of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. But DeSantis has been eager to make flashy moves with the migrants who have crossed the U.S. southern border as well, sending planes to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and California, to swift condemnation from Democratic leaders.

Chicago and Illinois officials have decried the Republican governors for what they say is DeSantis’ efforts to manipulate a humanitarian crisis for a political stunt.

The Times also noted the DeSantis’ administration specifically sought vendors who would agree with the following “truths” in its request for proposals: “The migrant and refugee issues are not going away,” and that “a small percentage of these migrants are criminals and malicious actors from foreign entities. They should be identified, apprehended and delivered to law enforcement,” Florida’s Division of Emergency Management wrote.

Apprehension over GardaWorld

The city contract is piggybacking on the $125 million state deal secured months ago with GardaWorld, but records from the state comptroller’s office show just one payment to the company in July for $2,650.

The state contract called for the company to “house between 250-700 people within a warehouse or other large building,” and emails and other records show the company was preparing plans for converting a former CVS store into an interim housing facility.

Although the state hasn’t paid GardaWorld much yet out of the contract, correspondence between Johnson and Pritzker’s administrations, including from Ponce de León, show that both were aware of the negative press GardaWorld has incurred.

Spokespeople for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and Department of Human Services did not respond immediately Wednesday to detailed questions about the state’s involvement in the city’s agreement with GardaWorld and the concerns previously raised.

But IEMA spokesman Kevin Sur said in a brief phone call that the state had “minimal interaction” with the company related to the mayor’s base camp proposal.

The state signed a separate $20 million contract with GardaWorld in February to “provide security services to Illinois Department of Human Services lodging sites in and around Chicagoland,” though the contract amount was eventually reduced to $100,000, according to records. At the end of last year, the department was housing more than 2,000 migrants across a dozen Chicago-area hotels, but state records show they had all moved out by early May.

The department signed another contract for up to $9.5 million with GardaWorld in August for “services related to an emergency shelter for asylum-seekers including set-up/tear-down, equipment/internet installation, personnel, etc.”

A Human Services spokeswoman did not respond immediately Wednesday to questions about the work GardaWorld performed under the contracts.

Alderman Andre Vasquez, chairman of the Chicago City Council’s immigration committee, told the Tribune on Wednesday, “I don’t understand why we would give money to the same folks” who were willing to do the bidding of DeSantis’ administration. He also said he had reservations about Johnson’s tent proposal and that the city should instead be spending money acquiring vacant properties for shelters.

“The fact that they’re kind of looking at it from this kind of detention lens isn’t something I believe we should be moving forward with,” Vasquez said when presented with the GardaWorld contract and related migrant dealings. “Again, I understand the need to figure out a solution in the short-term. Seeing the information, unless I get more, this does not appear to be it.”

Worries about heating during Chicago winter

Questions also remain on how GardaWorld’s base camp operations will fare for the asylum-seekers, many of them Venezuelan immigrants who trekked across Central and South America with few resources and are still awaiting job permits.

The contract with the city of Chicago details the firm would set up trailers and tents that could house between 250 to 1,400 migrants per base camp, with air conditioning and electrical systems. Although the contract states facilities will be able to cool down to 72 degrees if it is 95 degrees outside, it only lists capacity to heat the structures up to 70 degrees from 40 degrees — a floor that hardly matches the subzero temperatures that mark Chicago’s winters.

Tent encampments would be made with “ClearSpan” fabric and provide “natural ventilation, armshield cover and multiple foundation options,” according to the contract.

There would be groupings of smaller tents, which the contract describes as “yurts,” that span about 665 square feet and would be outfitted with a dozen sleeping cots, each with storage space and a minimum 40 square feet of space between occupants. Every yurt would be equipped with fire extinguishers, lighting and smoke and carbon monoxide alarms.

The contract lays out separate tents for operations staff and medically “isolated patients” who would be placed elsewhere in the base camp, in addition to other facilities for kitchens and bathrooms. The latter would be broken into trailers for toilets and urinals, an eight-head shower station, laundry and sinks.

For the “porta-trailer restroom,” the ratio calls for at least one toilet to 20 people, and one toilet and one urinal per 25 males, according to the contract. The firm would establish hand-washing stations to serve a ratio of one sink per 20 people.

Each occupant would get 64 ounces of bottled drinking water per day, per American Red Cross standards, according to the contract, as well as three meals a day, seven days a week. A sample dinner would include an entrée, bread, salad, vegetable, dessert and a beverage of coffee, juice or water.

All “security for the population” provided by GardaWorld in the basecamps would be unarmed, according to the contract, and the company is prepared to provide fencing options around the camps ranging from “small barrier/enclosure fencing to complete camp privacy fencing.”

For “soft-sided lodging” such as the tent encampments with utilities readily available, monthly costs will run $2.3 million for 200 to 400 people, and $7.2 million for between 1,201 to 1,400 people. Setup and teardown costs will range from $510,000 to $596,000.

If utilities such as water, electricity and waste are not readily available at the tent site, costs rise as well. Monthly expenditures for a base camp sheltering between 200 to 400 people will run at $2.4 million, while housing between migrants 1,201 and 1,400 will run $7.8 million. Setup and teardown costs will range from $552,000 to $638,000.