Temperatures are dropping without a finalized plan from the city to house migrants
More than a dozen gray and red tents line an open field outside the 12th district police station in Pilsen. Among these makeshift homes, a mattress, a reclining chair and scattered debris look woefully out of place.
The informal tent city offers only limited shelter from the elements, and it sprang up over the warm summer months. Its temporary residents are migrants, most of whom endured strenuous treks to the states from Central and South America. Most of them have never seen snow.
Alexander Rossi, 28, is one of these residents. He has been in Chicago for three months now.
“The hardest part has been just being here, but also the cold, we are worried about the cold,” said Rossi.
The scene at the 12th district police station isn’t unique. More than 20,000 migrants have come to Chicago since governors in Southern border states began bussing asylum seekers to sanctuary cities like Chicago and New York in August 2022, according to city data.
Many migrants, like Rossi, are from Venezuela, where political unrest, economic decline, and shortages of essential resources like food and medical services have forced millions to flee.
As buses from Southern border states continue to arrive, the city of Chicago is scrambling to find emergency housing. As temperatures drop, the city is considering its options for more appropriate housing.
Currently, 2,595 people live at police stations across the city, according to data compiled by Chicago’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Another 11,967 people are residing in city-run temporary shelters, the same data shows.
In hopes of achieving this goal, Mayor Brandon Johnson (D) on Sept. 12 signed a $29 million no-bid contract with GardaWorld Federal Services (GWFS) and its subsidiary Aegis Defense Services, LLC, to provide staffing and logistics in the construction of what Johnson called “winterized base camps.”
Under the contract with the city of Chicago, GWFS would be responsible for providing “food, housing, sanitary services, security, and other necessary services” to meet the needs of 250-1,400 people at each operating site.
Plans for temporary lodging, according to the contract, include options for the construction of temperature-controlled indoor (hard-sided) and outdoor (soft-sided) “yurts” with segregated sleeping areas. Hard-sided yurts are permanent while soft-sided are mobile.
Each yurt would be equipped with 12 sleeping cots with a “minimum of 40 sq. ft.” allotted to each occupant. “A pillow, blanket, sheet and pillowcase will be provided with each cot,” the contract reads.
Also included are “storage boxes, lockers or shelving…to ensure a neat, orderly
environment,” according to the contract.
The document lists six zones throughout Cook and Collar Counties (DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will) as potential development sites. Each site would also be equipped with shower and handwashing facilities, laundry and cleaning services, and a mobile kitchen unit.
In addition to lodging, GWFS would provide basic medical services and case management, interpreter services, childcare, hygiene, and family-related products, as well as transportation and waste removal. Operations described under the contract would cost the city between $1.8 million and $5.9 million per month.
Despite the city’s haste in procuring the contract with GWFS, advocates for immigrants and refugees in Chicago remain concerned by the city’s decision to partner with the company.
Who is GardaWorld?
GardaWorld is a private security company based in Montreal, Canada, and it currently operates across 45 different countries. Its 24 subsidiaries operate as GardaWorld Federal Services. The company provides services ranging from private security and surveillance to emergency logistics services.
GWFS: A Troubled History
GWFS has previously been contracted by the U.S. to provide emergency services to migrants. The company has faced allegations of misconduct and mistreatment, including in its treatment of migrants.
In 2021, whistleblowers Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire reported that undocumented children were put in danger at Fort Bliss, a military base outside of El Paso, Texas, where GWFS operated in a similar capacity described under its contract with the city of Chicago.
The Fort Bliss refugee center was established in 2018 by the Department of Health and Human Services Office (HHS) of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to care for 20,000 unaccompanied children who crossed the U.S. border.
There were six tents, each housing between 1,000 and 1,500 beds. According to the whistleblowers, the bunk beds were closely spaced, which impeded adult supervision, creating a risk that children in distress may be overlooked. In the tents, Elkin and Mulaire found multiple children suffering medical problems, including excessive bleeding and pain.
In one instance, Elkin discovered a “ghostly pale” girl who had not had her period for months and was now bleeding excessively. When Elkin informed a contractor that the girl needed medical help, she was dismissed. The girl only received medical help once Elkin brought the case to the contractor’s supervisor.
Elkin and Mulaire dealt with many children who also suffered from medical conditions and emotional distress. In the letter, they commented: “After witnessing the dire conditions at Fort Bliss, we feel it is our obligation to speak out. Regardless of one’s views about immigration policy, the reality is that these unaccompanied children are here now and are in U.S. custody. All children should be treated humanely and safely in America, and greater effort by HHS is needed to ensure that at Fort Bliss.”
In an email statement, GardaWorld Communications said it “categorically refutes all allegations of unsafe practices or neglect in any GardaWorld operations or activities.”
Several community organizers are currently speaking out about GWFS involvement with migrants. The Chicago Migrant Mutual Aid hosted a protest on September 29, where people gathered in anger and frustration for the lack of a better and more permanent solution for migrants.
One of the protesters described his disappointment with the plan: “We have a community that’s ready to help. We have a community that already has been helping.”
The Work of Nonprofit Organizations
Protesters aren’t the only ones advocating for broader participation of nonprofit organizations in finding a less controversial and potentially more humane solution to housing.
Ald. Andre Vasquez of the 40th Ward and Chair of Chicago’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights said the city has much to learn from community organizations “as they have been the example of how the community comes together to find solutions to our shared challenges.”
The possibility for an alternative is there, “but I understand the pressure the administration is under in dealing with this crisis in real time,” said Vasquez.
In the meantime, The Chicago Migrant Mutual Aid and other nonprofit organizations have been providing support and care for migrants.
One group called The Mobile Migrant Team provides medical care for migrants upon their arrival in Chicago. It was founded in May by first-year University of Illinois Chicago medical student Sara Izquierdo and physician Dr. Evelyn Figueroa.
The Mobile Migrant Team is composed of medical university students and other universities in the area and over 250 volunteers, according to Izquierdo. Since its founding, the organization has completed over 5,000 health assessments.
When migrants initially started coming to Chicago, they were relocated to shelters without significant medical care. The Mobile Migrant Team assesses the needs of the migrant patients, while also packaging medication in English and Spanish for prescription distribution.
“We are seeing children who have been cut up by the barbed wire and sloppily stitched up in Texas, put on a bus by Texas and then dropped off and deposited in Chicago police stations with their cuts infected,” said Izquierdo at the Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights meeting on September 29.
The team has also witnessed women who have had miscarriages and are still bleeding when they arrive in Chicago. As the team expands, it’s working on increased reproductive health access, including pregnancy tests and gynecology appointments.
The Mobile Migrant Team has crowdsourced over $30,000 and spent $20,000 in the first three to four months of its work, said Izquierdo. They collect money and donations from their GoFundMe and work with the Department of Public Health for grants.
“It’s really exhausting, especially when you have the time to sit and talk to individual people and hear what their stories and experiences have been like getting here,” said Jude Al-Abosy, one of the members of the Mobile Migrant Team. “It can be really emotionally exhausting. But it’s also really beautiful.”
The work of the Mobile Migrant Team and other nonprofit organizations has been keeping the city afloat as it works to develop a solution for migrants. Although the work can be tiring and relentless, Al-Abosy describes how wonderful it is to help people and see their relief in having medical care, shelter and food.
“The mutual groups have provided most of the support for those currently and have been at the police stations across the city since the beginning of the crisis one year ago,” said Vasquez. Their efforts have kept the city from being in an even worse position through all this.”
The administration has not offered much support to these volunteer mutual aid groups, according to Vasquez.
While the city works to provide housing, many migrants are seeking work permits.
There are a couple of ways for them to obtain permits.
The first is that migrants can apply for asylum within the first year after their arrival in the United States to get a work permit. Then, they must wait 150 days before applying for employment authorization documentation (EAD), according to Lisa Koop, director of legal services for the National Immigrant Justice Center. While the government is supposed to process work permits within 30 days of an application, it can sometimes take up to six months due to delays.
Permits for asylum seekers are valid until their asylum claim is decided. Asylum cases generally last six years, and work permits need to be renewed every two years, according to an article from Block Club Chicago.
The other option, for migrants not seeking asylum or unable to get asylum, allows individuals to request employment authorization documentation through parole. Parole “allows an individual, who may be inadmissible or otherwise ineligible for admission into the United States, to be paroled into the United States for a temporary period,” according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. However, according to Koop, the work permit only lasts as long as the individual’s parole.
As of now, according to the Federal Register, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have extended the temporary protected status (TPS) of Venezuelan nationals for 18 months.
This protected status starts on March 11, 2024, and ends September 10, 2025. According to CBS News Chicago, the TPS will allow migrants who arrived in the United States before the end of July to apply for work permits and deportation protection. The Biden administration said it would expedite the review of work permits and plans to have decisions made within 30 days as of October 12.
The city of Chicago announced October 15 that it would be evaluating a plot of land in Brighton Park as a potential location for the tent sites. The land has been considered “viable,” and work has ensued to determine if the site is suitable, according to deputy mayor of infrastructure and services Lori Lypson in a community meeting Tuesday night. The city is currently working on environmental testing to confirm that it is safe for temporary housing.
In the meantime, thousands of migrants remain in less-than-adequate housing conditions. The tents spread over the field outside the 12th district police stations and others like it will not protect from the bitter Chicago winter that will soon take over the city. Migrants such as Rossi are desperate for a plan but determined to build a life in Chicago.
“If you’re going to help Venezuelan citizens, may it be anyone of any nationality, help them. You have to support them with security. People that really want to work and have stability in the United States,” Rossi said. “And if they can’t have that, then support them so they can study, be successful, earn a job and advance forward.”
Header by Mei Harter