Harsha Walia Talks About GardaWorld, Migrant Camps and Chicago

"GardaWorld literally operates sites of carcerality, of social control," says Harsha Walia.

There is an ongoing controversy in Chicago around the city’s decision to commit to a $30 million contract with GardaWorld, a security company widely known as the “Blackwater of Canada.” GardaWorld has received heavy criticism for human rights abuses at a tented migrant shelter at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, where reports of child rape, lice, uncooked food, inadequate protection from the elements, and other harmful conditions have been well documented. According to El Paso Matters, whistleblowers Laurie Elkin and Justin Mulaire reported that “there were significant problems when they tried to report on incidents that caused harm to the children at the facility. They described widespread indifference among staff and supervisors toward children in medical distress and active discouragement from helping children seek medical care.”

Some officials have emphasized that Chicago’s GardaWorld camps would be staffed locally. I do not take much comfort in this assurance, given that GardaWorld will be managing Chicago’s camps, and, unfortunately, some Chicagoans are capable of participating in structural violence. But if the firm does, in fact, hire locally, we should be concerned about the welfare of those employees as well. In 2020, just weeks before GardaWorld employee Johnathon Lue burned alive in the back of a GardaWorld armored truck, one of his colleagues confronted management over a Tampa Bay Times investigation that showed “Garda had taken shortcuts on maintenance and training, sending armored trucks hurtling out of control across America.”

GardaWorld has also been criticized for its work in Libya, where the company “may have contravened that country’s laws as well as UN resolutions 1970 and 1973,” in addition to other international scandals.

I could go on, but I think you’re getting the picture. Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson has faced criticism for a lack of transparency with regard to the city’s decision to hire GardaWorld to create “winterized” migrant camps. Given that the city is piggybacking off of a state contract with GardaWorld, the City Council will not be voting on Chicago’s contract with the company. Critics, from The Sun-Times Editorial Board to some members of the Chicago City Council and local mutual aid volunteers, whose work has been crucial to the well-being of newly arriving asylum seekers, have demanded greater transparency from Johnson, and alternatives to the GardaWorld camps. For his part, Mayor Johnson has reportedly agreed to meet with members of 33rd Ward Working Families, who recently issued a statement that included the following questions for Mayor Johnson:

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?

33rd Ward Working Families expressed that having “publicly endorsed, canvassed and raised money” for Johnson, during his mayoral campaign, they felt a “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.” I applaud their commitment to accountability and hope that their dialogue with Johnson is a productive one.

Johnson’s supporters have placed a great deal of emphasis on the neoliberal train wreck that his administration has inherited. Such defenses have validity, but it bears noting that Johnson was aware of the city’s gutted service infrastructure and the larger catastrophes of capitalism when he decided to run for office and promised voters progressive solutions. Johnson’s critics (some of whom are also supporters) are right to demand transparency, dialogue, and alternatives. It is also important to consider these decisions in their larger international context, in terms of what the creation of these kinds of spaces has meant for the people who are contained within them. To further consider those contexts, and what we can learn from how the creation of migrant camps has played out historically, I spoke to my friend and touchstone Harsha Walia, author of Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism.

Kelly Hayes: Having looked at some of what's going on in Chicago with regard to asylum seekers, the GardaWorld contract, and the winterized camps that Mayor Brandon Johnson plans to build, what are your initial thoughts?

Harsha Walia: What is happening in Chicago is mirrored in cities and countries around the world where, on the one hand, you have this incredibly right-wing fascist, overtly anti-migrant push of like "We don't want migrants." And we see that in Europe, for example, where more overtly right-wing governments are essentially refusing to take migrants, then using it as a political strategy to wear down seemingly more liberal and/or progressive jurisdictions. In the case of Chicago, the fact that Chicago is deliberately being "overwhelmed," even that language of overwhelmed is so gross, but being overwhelmed with migrants — that is the right-wing strategy to bus people into welcoming cities, into sanctuary cities to say, let's see what you're going to do.

I think that context is important to keep in mind because it’s playing out all around the world where, first and foremost, migrants are basically being used as political pawns and that is disgusting and despicable and dehumanizing. I think left strategies and responses have to refuse to play into that playbook of letting humans be treated in this way, as pawns that are to be redistributed and shuffled around as if though where they want to live and their own dignity in this doesn't matter, as if they're just supposed to be grateful to be moved around anywhere within the so-called West, anywhere into any EU country or into any kind of US jurisdiction, as if though you have no autonomy or self-determination for yourself as to where it is you actually want to live.

I think, for me, the starting principle is self-determination and people's autonomy and agency and desires and dreams and not just to be treated as pawns to be moved around between cities or moved around between sites of housing, which is then this other question of you're being moved from the floor of a police station to a winterized tent. Well, isn't that better? That really is a zero-sum game, which again violates the principle of self-determination. It's like a devil's advocate choice of choosing between horrific options. It's lowering the bar consistently about what we demand, not only for migrants, but for everybody. Everybody deserves housing. If we accept that migrants can be shuffled around and moved into essentially a massive camp, then that means we start to accept that for every single person. It means that governments get off the hook from universal solutions that we believe to be true, which is housing for everybody, the decriminalization of migration and not treating migrants as pawns.

I think what I'm saying may sound like a lot of rhetoric, but I do think that is the starting principle of how we approach any of these questions, which is that is this actually valuing and dignity or are we just playing lesser of two evils and getting caught up in this liberal game of, well, our hands are tied or this is better than nothing. I think if anything serves as a caution, it really is places in Europe where, in response to the waves of migrant movement and displacement, we had EU countries deliberately creating a crisis and a situation of overwhelm. Right?

In 2015, people may recall all of the news stories about migrant displacement, the migrant crisis, and the EU being "overrun" by migrants. In hotspots what are called the southern countries like Greece and elsewhere, people were literally being placed in massive, massive camps that housed tens of thousands of people, that were built to house maybe 2000 people, and after decades, now house tens of thousands of people. Because the other thing that happens is these temporary sites become permanent. They don't stay temporary, they become the solution. You end up in a situation that is logistically gross and overwhelming, like people not having adequate access to bathrooms.

It's ironic because on the one hand, these temporary sites are supposed to be "better" than makeshift shelters, but over time that is what they become. They become makeshift shelters that don't have adequate sanitation, that are completely overcrowded. One of the largest camps in Greece, the Moria camp, incidents of sexual assault and violence were recorded on a daily basis, incidents of youth suicide, overall mental health, anxiety and depression just plummeting and people literally talking about them like carceral sites. Right? Like extraction of time, endless extraction of time. You can't do anything with yourself because you're in this bureaucratic maze. What's happened since is, now not only has this become effectively a permanent solution in Europe, it also actually facilitates the far-right attack against migrants because these become visible sites of othering. Right?

You have these massive refugee camps where people are then attacked, far-right vigilantes attack these sites. They become sites of silos, they become sites of scapegoating, they become sites of abandonment, they become sites of violence precisely because these are sites that are contained and they are labeled as such, rather than people being able to live in social housing in cities with other people, you become siloed into a migrant camp. That is another thing that has happened in the European context is that actually facilitates this far right rhetoric of the migrant as the other, as the scapegoat, as someone who is supposedly "extracting resources" and draining resources. That happens.

Then the third thing is that these sites over time do become increasingly sites of social control by their very design and by their very ideology because by creating separate sites for people again that are like othering, that are othered, you now have these camps in the European context, for example, where curfews are established, you can't leave after 8:00 PM. You have to have an ID. You have to constantly show your ID. You are subject to increasing rules and regulations.

They're not housing in the sense that any of us would imagine housing in its form to be right, some sense of freedom, some sense of autonomy. They're essentially like halfway houses. Those are the kinds of things that these logics come to bear over time. That was a very long answer, but I just want to contextualize how quickly these kinds of spaces can become something else by the very design and by the very logic and how important it is not to simply accept the scraps of liberalism or accept the scraps of inevitability, “we have no other choice, we have no other resources,” but to truly fight what is an unacceptable solution to increasing global displacement on this planet that we are bound up in.

KH: GardaWorld has been called the “Blackwater of Canada.” Do you have any thoughts about this company?

HW: I mean all of these kinds of security companies, I would think that we would intuitively be suspicious of them running anything that is supposed to have a "charitable" or humanitarian kind of foundation. GardaWorld is a company like many others that literally operates sites of carcerality, of social control. I understand GardaWorld is actually also responsible for having transported people into Chicago. They're a part of the logistical infrastructure that has created this very problem. It actually reminds me, in the Canadian context, for many years the Canadian army built sites at the border. A similar kind of situation was happening at the US-Canadian border where during the Trump years in particular, a number of migrants were coming up to the US-Canada border. And instead of Canada actually responding in a just way, which is giving people their papers, granting people refugee status, allowing people to work, allowing people to become part of the community, Canada really played up on this angle of the crisis because part of what happens is creating the specter of crisis and othering feeds more border militarization. It has a logic of its own.

By invoking a crisis, it means we militarize the border more. What Canada did is instead of welcoming ostensibly these folks coming in from the US, it contracted out massive camps at the site of the border to the Canadian army. A lot of people, similar to what's happening in Chicago, were like, "Well, it's better than refugees [being outside] in the dead of winter." As you can imagine, the US-Canada border near Vermont is extremely cold and it's snowing and a lot of people actually got hypothermia from trying to make these crossings. The logic was like, well, at least these winterized tents, very similar to what's being proposed in Chicago, are better than nothing. It was a real hard debate within the movement where mostly social service providers and other more charitable organizations were willing to accept these camps.

I will note that over time they did change their tune on it because they started to realize that these kinds of infrastructures became permanent. It allowed the state to actually delay the processes because as more and more people were being housed in these camps, it meant the state could drag their feet in terms of actually resolving the situation of their immigration status itself because people were "temporarily housed", so their immigration processes were dragging on at the border for longer. We were just like, really? Are we really going to believe that the Canadian army, the military, is somehow not going to operate these camps with a measure of social control and carceral containment and the logics of military rule, of oppression? The military that literally as part of its training learns incredibly racist ideas about the very same people that we are now suggesting that they're somehow going to support.

Similarly, security companies who operate and whose personnel are trained in logics of treating people as threats, as suspicious, as things to be contained, can not operate these sites as anything but those kinds of logics. Let alone the design of this kind of camp infrastructure. Everything about this is incredibly troubling. I do think this is a moment to not accept this infrastructure as the lesser of two evils. Because everywhere in reality where it has panned out, whether it's the Canada-US border example that I just gave, or whether it's the massive infrastructure of containment in the European hotspots, these kinds of camps are now very clearly seen as part of the problem. They're not seen as part of the solution. They're seen as part of the problem, and they are being targeted. Migrants who live in them, for example, are often now protesting against these very sites and are demanding freedom from these sites.

While I can't predict what will happen in Chicago, I think it is so important to learn from other places and to learn from historical context about what this may become and how to have the foresight to refuse this kind of infrastructure and to demand something more for everybody. To demand the decriminalization of migration. To demand that people have the right to their papers, to be able to live in communities, and to demand housing for all people and to demand an end to this kind of redistribution game where migrants are treated as pawns, which if anything, will further fuel the right in terms of this dehumanizing logic.

KH: Some people are saying that we have to be “realistic,” and that we should be offering fully formed solutions of our own if we don’t like the GardaWorld plan. I struggle with this, as I believe “not this” is a valid moral objection to injustice, even if we don’t have all the answers. I am, of course, in favor of us creating alternative plans, and demanding more resources from the state of Illinois and the federal government, but I think a lot of necessary change begins with people saying, “Not this.” And we don’t really have all of the information we need to generate the fully formed plans that some people are demanding of us anytime we speak out against these camps. I don’t work for the city government, and not even the City Council was allowed to play a role in deciding on this plan. I didn’t run for mayor in apocalyptic times promising progressive solutions, and I have not been at the table, in terms of evaluating all of the resources and alternatives involved. None of the people who are upset about this were invited to engage in some transparent process about how we can address this. But in any case, I really struggle with the idea that we shouldn’t object to the creation of migrant camps run by a company like GardaWorld unless we have all of the answers in our back pocket. I am willing to work toward answers, but for me, and for a lot of other people, that begins with saying “not this” to GardaWorld.

HW: It's so similar to when people respond to say, oh, well, you can't abolish the police. What are you going to do about social violence? Your demands are not realistic. That's the kind of retort that is always used against those of us making maximalist demands, that this is not pragmatic, we can't transform these institutions overnight. You can't demand so much. It'll create mayhem if you abolish the police in prisons. What will happen to social violence and what will happen to survivors? All of those kinds of things that we know so well. I guess my response is why is it any different? Why is it any different in this situation to demand the maximalist demands?

Absolutely, the demand for housing for all people is not even that maximalist of a demand. Right? In the sense of we're not even calling for the transformation of the capitalist system. We're saying that a state that generates revenue, a state that actually has money, needs to prioritize housing for all people, and that is also part of the abolition program as we know it, right? Like defund from the cops and put that money into housing, put it into social services, put it into social infrastructure. That is a very pragmatic demand, actually. Something that the state at all levels and all jurisdictions has the capacity and ability to do and should be doing. Certainly moves can be made towards that end.

I think if people are really kind hitching their wagon onto this idea of pragmatism, then certainly one of the very pragmatic things that a city can actually do is get into, I'm not sure exactly how it looks like in the states, but in the Canadian context, it is mostly actually the far-right that uses the strategy because frankly, liberals always pretend that they can't do this. It's like a way in which they throw their hands up, but they refuse to cooperate until the feds give them money.

In the Canadian context, we have conservative jurisdictions who will end up in these protracted battles with the federal government around resourcing. I have never quite understood why left jurisdictions or ostensibly left jurisdictions just throw their hands up and say, "Well, we can't do anything." Because they could also be demanding much more, for example, from the federal government in terms of resourcing if the city doesn't have enough. It is just really hard to believe that a state at various jurisdictions, local, state level, federal, that is literally sitting on millions of dollars is suddenly throwing its hands up and saying, "There is no other solution." That is just not governance. If that is the reality of the constraints of the situation, that is just, frankly, if the city can give $30 million dollars to GardaWorld, then it behooves the question, why GardaWorld? Why could these tens of millions of dollars not be given to run public housing by a social housing provider that is accessible and safe and universal for all people? Clearly there is money. That money was given to GardaWorld to run a particular kind of housing that is contained, that is dehumanizing, that is through its very logic of winterized tents for migrants creates a site of othering and containment rather than actually a city solution to take those tens of millions of dollars and build support services for migrants and for all people in the city.

KH: As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about and researching issues related to migration and the rights of displaced people, do you have any other thoughts you would like to share?

HW: One thing that I think is so crucial to understand, maybe two things, is one just how severe the crisis of displacement already is and how serious it is going to become in the era of climate catastrophe. I think one of the things that we have to understand is that migrants, amongst others, are really like canaries in the mine of the ways in which societies are going to be governed at a global scale. A lot of AI infrastructure, for example, that we are now so concerned with, a lot of it was piloted in the context of war and occupation, and migrant camps actually. A lot of migrant camps had a lot of AI technology tested on them a few decades ago. The whole strategy of keeping people in camps and accepting camps as a logic of social differentiation and othering and accepting camps as a logic of how we sort through human populations comes from the model of refugee camps going back 60, 70 years.

I'm not saying it's the only model, but it is an enduring model. I think we have to be really critical to, even in our own consciousness, work against the idea that there even is such a thing as a migrant. Right? The very category of a migrant and a refugee is a state created, state differentiated category of a human being. Migrants wouldn't exist if there were no borders. That just wouldn't be a thing. Migrants wouldn't be pawns in this game between different states if borders were not real. Migrants and refugees are state created categories of difference and hierarchy and forms of othering. It's so important that in thinking through how to support migrants, how to move towards solutions and transformations that uphold dignity and self-determination, that we even question the logic that somehow migrants deserve something different than anybody else in our community.

If we don't accept a low bar for housing as a solution for anyone in our community, as social movements, we do want housing for all people. We don't want people to be houseless. We don't want people to have to choose between the street and a shitty shelter. That is the very same for migrants. They shouldn't have to choose between the floor of a police station and a private security-run winterized "camp." That is a model of containment and othering. I think the specter of the migrant crisis shouldn’t be any different for the left than solutions that we would have for anybody, which is absolutely transformative solutions of housing for all people, movement, and safety for all people, dignity for all people, everybody having their needs met, everybody providing for their needs, and ensuring real safety for people that is not run by capitalist logics, and that is not run by the racial hierarchies of bordering logics that we internalize. I think the premise can't just be what is the lesser of two evils?

The premise has to be what moves us towards freedom and self-determination for people who are so deeply, deeply made vulnerable, and what are the solutions that undo the logic of the border rather than reinforce the logic of the border.

KH: What would you say to people who are speaking out against the GardaWorld camps, who are facing hostility from comrades and community members who feel we should be more supportive of the Johnson administration?

HW: I'm not in Chicago, so I don't understand all of the contours of this, but I can imagine it having been in a city, in a province where I live, where we are now governed by people who were our comrades, who many in the left did get elected. What I'm about to say is not "purely ideological," but it really is if we believe in holding people to account that we help get elected, then we actually have to do that. It's not about being loyal or disloyal. It's about being true to our principles. That has to be what guides our ethics. It means that we have to hold our elected leaders to account, even if they're our friends or our comrades. That should be a given. In fact, that is often the logic that is presented when we are told about why we should support left electeds. Right?

It is like, “Let's get the left elected into power, and then we will hold them accountable. The fight will not end.” If we understand that the fight doesn't end once they're elected, then that means we have to continue that fight. I don't know the dynamics as well in Chicago, not being there, but I do as a general kind of statement believe that our ethics can't change depending on what administration is in power. If this is something that would've outraged us under a different administration, then it has to outrage us in this administration as well. We have learned that lesson under so many different iterations of electeds. We do have to hold them to the same standards, and we do have to articulate our demands on our terms rather than concede our demands based on what electeds are telling us we should want.

I think that is a strategic point. That's a point of weakness. Right? To not demand what we actually want. If what we want is a more dignified solution, then we should demand it, and then they can make their case for why that is not possible, rather than us conceding that point at face value.