As an organization that publicly endorsed, canvassed and raised money for Mayor Brandon Johnson, we feel a responsibility to speak out about the recent plan to house asylum seekers in temporary structures that have to withstand the harsh reality of Chicago winters, and are built and administered by the private security contractor GardaWorld. We have concerns based on GardaWorld’s history of mistreatment and abuse of people held in immigration detention, and skepticism that a for-profit contractor will fulfill the promises it makes.
We recognize that the Johnson administration is still young, and has inherited massive challenges as well as a city government whose ability to serve the people of Chicago has atrophied from decades of disinvestment, closure, and privatization under former mayors Daley, Emanuel, and Lightfoot. There is no overstating the damage done to resources like public housing, public mental health clinics, and public schools.
We commend the Johnson administration, and its progressive allies in City Council, for their vigor in working with these limited resources to live up to our commitment as a Welcoming City. But we must also affirm that the goal of our movement is not merely to manage the wreckage of neoliberalism, but to build a city that serves all its residents, new and old.
Nobody wants to see asylum seekers on the floors of police stations, but the potential that these structures prove inadequate and leave people to the mercy of private police and soldiers is no less troubling. If the administration earnestly believes these are the best available options, we call for radical transparency: What are the plans and timelines to transition from tents to dignified housing? What is the plan to prevent GardaWorld from committing abuses? Which hotels and conference centers have offered to help? What is preventing the Federal Emergency Management Agency from replacing GardaWorld? What capacities does the city have to seize properties with eminent domain or construct and administer shelters without relying on military-industrial profiteers? How long until Biden’s work visas take effect? As host city for the DNC, what relief is Biden offering so we aren’t solving a national issue on our own?
Right-wingers like Texas Governor Greg Abbott are exploiting the crisis to turn us against our migrant siblings. Abbott and his ilk have also pushed the boundaries of politics, endangering and killing asylum seekers through their stunts while daring politicians and government agencies to stop them. The elected leaders raised up by our movement cannot afford to remain on the defensive. We need them to be equally willing to take bold action for the purpose of resolving this crisis through care and love. Using emergency powers to retrofit existing structures must be explored, as it was during the early months of the pandemic. Using eminent domain on vacant and underutilized properties must be on the table. We have reached a crucial point where Mayor Johnson and his administration can prove to the grassroots movements that powered his campaign that he will deliver on the promise of transformational leadership.
As movement organizations, we demand more from the Johnson administration and our progressives in City Council because we have stood with you in the past to make similar demands of past administrations. We have stood with you to make similar demands of federal and state officials as well, and we fully intend to do so still. We know that in the last year more Ukrainians refugees have arrived in Chicago than Venezuelan asylum seekers, with minimal friction as the government has quietly provided them with work visas and social benefits. Who at the state or federal level is preventing us from taking these steps for all people seeking security and a home here? This is a national issue that one city cannot solve alone.
Chicago is a city built on the confluence of native and migrant peoples. It is the energy of this sharing of knowledge, experiences, and willingness to overcome challenges that makes us one of the greatest cities in the world. The heart of this city beats at the pace of our caring communities, as seen by the mutual aid network that has risen up and united to meet the needs of asylum seekers. Our own ward, with assistance from our alderwoman, saw the formation of Community Care Collective 33, bringing radical collective care to our newest neighbors. This demonstrates that if the Johnson administration were to take bold steps, the city would rally to support it.
In the meantime, unless certain questions can be clearly answered, we support calls to #CancelGardaWorld contracts and demand alternatives to the “base camps”. We also encourage supporters of keeping Chicago a Welcoming City to attend the subject matter hearing held by the City Council Committee on Immigrants and Refugee Rights on Friday, Sept 29, at 9am. Submit questions by Sept 28 by 9am.
–33rd Ward Working Families Steering Committee