The city's Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights met for a tense five-hour meeting Friday. Credit: Screenshot

CITY HALL — In a marathon committee meeting Friday, volunteers working closely with migrants blasted the city’s choice to use a controversial company to build tent camps, while some alderpeople pointed the finger at state officials for not helping enough. 

Tensions were high during the five-hour meeting of the city’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Chairman Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) had to call for order multiple times, warning spectators they would be removed if they didn’t quiet down. At one point, Vasquez called for a brief recess to address outbursts. 

Cristina Pacione-Zayas, the mayor’s first deputy chief of staff; Beatriz Ponce de Leon, deputy mayor for immigrant, migrant and refugee rights; and other city officials briefed committee alderpeople on how the city is helping migrants, including providing updated spending data and information about plans for the future.

Since August 2022, more than 15,000 people, most from Central and South America, have arrived in Chicago. Buses are still coming daily, with a record number of new arrivals coming to Chicago last week.

RELATED: Chicago Sees A Record 27 Migrant Buses Arrive In Less Than A Week

Many asylum seekers are from Venezuela, which has struggled with an economic crisis that has caused severe food and medicine shortages, hyperinflation, widespread unemployment and violent crime. 

This rise of arrivals has left about 2,200 people sleeping in police station lobbies and at O’Hare Airport, according to the Office of Emergency Management and Communications. About 9,300 people are living in 21 city-run shelters, up from 6,600 on Aug. 31. There were 223 people living in the 9th District police station last week, according to the city. 

Ald. Andre Vasquez Jr. (40th) speaks at a special City Council meeting to confirm Larry Snelling as Chicago Police superintendent on Sept. 27, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

GardaWorld Contract ‘Immoral,’ Volunteer Says

The pressure to house all newcomers, especially with winter coming, led Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration to recently sign a $29 million contract with Virginia-based GardaWorld Federal Services and its subsidiary, Aegis Defense Services, for the firm to “provide temporary housing, on an as-needed basis” for asylum seekers, records show.

The deal was revealed after Mayor Brandon Johnson said he planned to move migrants from police stations into “winterized base camps.” City officials have said the military-grade tents will be climate-controlled with bathrooms and showers, intake spaces and facility areas, but it’s still unclear where the tents will be built.

The GardaWorld contract has been heavily criticized by neighbors and some alderpeople, including during Friday’s committee meeting.

Anna DiStefano, a member of a mutual aid group that temporarily sheltered migrants in Pilsen over the summer, said at the meeting it is disappointing to have the city fund a proposal for “refugee camps” instead of giving money to support endeavors from local groups. 

“It is absolutely immoral to take the money that is for this crisis and send it to GardaWorld, a company with a record of international human rights abuses,” DiStefano said. “That’s not a company that we have any business working with, that a sanctuary city has any business hiring to build any kind of shelter for a vulnerable population of migrants.”

A deal with GardaWorld to shelter migrants streaming into Denver was abruptly halted by that city’s mayor earlier this year after organizers lambasted conditions at immigrant detention centers built by the firm in Canada and Texas.

The Denver Post reported GardaWorld worked with the federal government for a center at Fort Bliss military base in El Paso, Texas, in 2021 for thousands of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the border. The inspector general for the U.S. Department of Health And Human Services singled out substandard living conditions and insufficient training for staff at the facility, saying children suffered panic attacks and other issues while facing long waits to see a case manager.

BBC investigation found allegations of sexual abuse and rape of children, COVID and lice outbreaks, a lack of clean clothes and hungry children being served undercooked meat at the Fort Bliss facility.

In a statement to Block Club, a GardaWorld spokesperson said the company was not responsible for “case management” at the Fort Bliss facility, its operations are routinely audited by authorities for human rights compliance and it “categorically” refuted “all allegations of unsafe practices or neglect.”

RELATED: What To Know About GardaWorld, The Controversial Security Company Tapped To Build Migrant Tent Camps

Guadalupe Puga, a volunteer who works closely with migrants staying at the Near West (12th) District police station, also slammed the tent camp proposal. Puga said neighbors and local organizations can care for asylum seekers “cheaper, better and with more respect for human dignity” than any corporation, and the city should invest in that infrastructure.

“This is not a long-term solution,” Puga said. “This is not recommended by experts in urban refugee and resettlement, it’s not sustainable and it is politically unpopular. The $30 million really does not help Chicago’s existing unhoused population. It does not support public safety. As we’ve heard, it’s bad for public health. And it does not support human dignity.”

Volunteers have already been working around the clock and using their own money to provide meals, bedding, medicine and more for asylum seekers, without adequate communications or partnership with the city, Puga said.

Migrants take shelter and live inside of the Near West 12th police precinct in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., August 29, 2023. Credit: Jim Vondruska for Block Club Chicago

Ald. Vasquez previously said he was wary of the city’s contract with GardaWorld, saying he’d like to see the city instead rehab existing buildings for future use. 

Kicking off Friday’s meeting, Vasquez said he was “conflicted” over the tent camp proposal but there are “no easy decisions” with this issue. 

“I am saddened by the possibility that we are on the precipice of this administration moving forward with building military-grade tent base camps in our great city,” Vasquez said. 

“The Chicagoan in me that was born and raised here by an immigrant family finds it hard to stomach such a heartbreaking and horrifying possibility. The elected representative in me, on the other hand, recognizes that in order for us to be successful, we as a municipal government have to come together to move our city forward. I don’t have the luxury to walk away because I disagree.”

Officials have pushed back on some of the criticisms leveled toward GardaWorld and the city’s decision to work with them. 

During a press briefing Thursday, Pacione-Zayas said city officials aren’t abandoning their brick-and-mortar shelter strategy, but they want to implement the tent camps to clear police stations “as quickly as possible.”

“There is an impression that these will be detention centers, or — I’ve heard in the most extreme, concentration camps — and that is absolutely not the case,” she said. “We are working with GardaWorld to ensure that we are centering the dignity, the respect and the humanity that these individuals absolutely deserve.”

Cristina Pacione-Zayas, first deputy chief of staff to Mayor Brandon Johnson, speaks at a press conference at Roberto Clemente Community Academy before the opening of a pilot CPS welcome center for newly arriving families on July 17, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Pacione-Zayas said they’re discussing how GardaWorld could hire Chicagoans to staff the tent camps once they’re running. GardaWorld could also contract local companies for wraparound services, she said. 

Addressing concerns about accountability, Pacione-Zayas said the Mayor’s Office would be in charge of overseeing GardaWorld. 

The price tag of the contract with GardaWorld, on top of the hundreds of millions the city has spent caring for migrants, drew criticism from some neighbors during the public comment period. 

Pacione-Zayas said between August and the end of the year, the city is expected to spend up to $230 million. In total, the city could spend $319-$362 million on the crisis since its start in August 2022. 

Previously, some neighbors and alderpeople from the South and West sides have criticized the attention and funding given to the humanitarian crisis, arguing the city needs to focus on current residents who have long lived in disinvested communities. 

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), vice chair of the Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, has been vocal about her conflicting feelings on this issue. The alderwoman said Friday she feels like she’s being made “to choose one set of people over the other.”

“And it’s wrong,” she said. “People just want some things in order, and none of this is done in order. We’re spending all this money — and people got the right, as a taxpayer, as a person who works here, I got the right to know where you’re spending my money and if people are doing the job.”

Ald. Jeanette B. Taylor (20th) speaks to reporters after a City Council meeting on Jan. 18, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Pritzker Says He Has Concerns Over Tent Camp Plan

Committee members also used Friday’s meeting to respond to Gov. JB Pritzker, who said he has “concerns” over Johnson’s tent camp plan, according to Capitol Fax

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) blasted Pritzker’s critique, saying the state hasn’t opened any shelters to house migrants or reimbursed the city for expenses incurred from this crisis. The alderman first criticized Pritzker’s comments on social media

“That is shameful because we are a welcoming state, because this governor has said that he supports migrants, that he supports immigrants. But when it comes to helping this city in this moment of need — and the city is doing everything that it can with senior staff working around the clock to make sure that we are living up to our responsibilities as a sanctuary city — the state of Illinois can’t help us,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “The state of Illinois is currently failing the people of the city of Chicago. It is time for JB Pritzker to live up to his promises and his words and to stop lying.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) at a City Council meeting at City Hall on June 21, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Jordan Abudayyeh, Pritzker’s deputy chief of staff for communications, declined to comment on the remarks made during the committee meeting. But she said the state has spent $328 million in direct support for Illinois cities welcoming migrants and to support organizations like Catholic Charities and the Greater Food Depository, which have been involved in shelter and resettlement efforts.

Pacione-Zayas also said city officials have worked since May with the state to possibly open a state-run migrant shelter at a closed CVS in Little Village, but there’s been little movement as the negotiation process has been slow. 

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