A large immigrant detention center run by private prison company GEO Group sits in the heart of Aurora. But the facility has largely stayed out of the local political spotlight in the decades that it's been there.
"I'm in my seventeenth year of elected service, and all during that time period, I only heard GEO come up maybe two or three times, with the third time only being this most recent situation, where the congressman and councilwoman went in and got their name in the paper," says Bob LeGare, Aurora's mayor. LeGare is referring to the visit that Aurora City Councilwoman Allison Hiltz and Congressman Jason Crow paid the GEO facility in February; they were ultimately denied access.
LeGare considers the detention center a business like any other in Aurora. "We don’t have any more interaction with them than we do with any other business," he says. "It’s not the role of the Aurora municipal government to deal with federal holding facilities."
But some local elected officials are beginning to disagree. Whereas attorneys, immigration-rights activists and national politicos, including Crow and Congressman Joe Neguse, have been the main critics of the facility, now members of Aurora City Council are speaking out about alleged medical neglect and other violations at the center, and considering establishing local checks and balances.
Immigrant detention facilities, especially along the U.S.-Mexican border, have been increasingly scrutinized in recent months as news stories and images from inside illustrate poor conditions such as overcrowding and unsanitary environments. The Aurora facility has been hit with its own bad press over disease outbreaks, quarantines and allegations of medical neglect.
Issues at the facility might have flown under the radar in years past. But in 2017, Aurora's city council shifted from largely conservative to slightly more blue, with three progressive candidates, including Hiltz, winning seats. And in November, voters will get to choose a new mayor and vote on five city council seats. LeGare, who took over as mayor after longtime Aurora politician Steve Hogan died in spring 2018, is not running. Marsha Berzins, who represents Ward III, former congressman Mike Coffman, former Aurora city councilman Ryan Frazier, former city councilwoman Renie Peterson, and NAACP Aurora president Omar Montgomery are all vying for the top spot.
On June 22, four Aurora City Council members, including the three progressives, issued a statement condemning the "inhumane conditions within the GEO Group facility right here in Aurora." Councilwomen Hiltz, Crystal Murillo, Nicole Johnston and Angela Lawson, a former Republican turned independent, noted that "ICE has explicitly pointed to Aurora's own ICE detention center...for failing to provide adequate medical care and for violating ICE's own standards."
"To me, I had to [sign on to the letter] because it’s about people. I think people should be treated humanely, and if these things are going on in the facility, it’s a problem," says Lawson. The other six councilmembers declined to sign the letter, arguing that national immigration policy is outside their purview as city officials.
Pablo Paez, GEO Group's vice president, said in a statement to Westword that the center is working on enhancements: “The Aurora ICE Processing Center has provided high-quality services for over three decades under both Democratic and Republican administrations. While the findings of the Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General in three areas are important, it is also important to note that there are hundreds of requirements under the federal government’s performance-based standards that the Center is required to meet. While we disagree in part with these findings, our company has already submitted a plan to the federal government to make further enhancements in these service delivery areas.”
And the ICE Denver field office director, John Fabbricatore, sent us this statement: “Despite the biased hype from misinformed individuals or groups with an extreme agenda, it must be emphasized that our ICE officers treat everyone we encounter with dignity and respect. Also, the vast majority of illegal aliens we target for arrest and removal have a criminal conviction, or they received their final removal orders from a federal immigration judge. By committing crimes as illegal aliens, or remaining in the United States after receiving a final order of removal, they have flouted U.S. criminal and immigration laws. Our ICE officers improve the overall safety of communities throughout Colorado by removing criminal aliens from the streets and from the U.S. Before anyone — especially elected officials — publishes one-sided or outright false information against ICE, they should first seek out more information from ICE and about ICE and its positive impact on local communities.”
During the open-comment period at the city council meeting on June 24, nine people testified about the immigration detention center, pleading with council to take a more active role in its day-to-day operations.
“I would like to ask you, as city council, if you will stand if you are against the horrible attacks on immigrant families by this administration, and if you are going to do everything in your power to protect immigrant families in Aurora," said Dana Miller, an organizer with Indivisible Front Range Resistance. The four city council members who stood sent the June 22 statement.
As for one of the councilmembers who remained in his seat, "I would’ve stood up, if the question had been more narrowly proposed relating to the health and safety of the GEO occupants. But it seemed like it was a much broader condemnation of the current federal policies on asylum and refugee status," says Charlie Richardson, the councilman for Ward IV in Aurora.
Before joining city council, Richardson served as Aurora city attorney. He recalls protests when the GEO facility first opened, in the mid-’80s, but they were nothing like the activism happening in recent weeks outside the facility. "It’s never been as intense as it is now," he says. On June 21, over 200 individuals protested outside the facility, and organizers of a rally on July 12 expect over 1,000 people.
It's not just the high frequency and large turnout of the protests that are new. Lawson doesn't remember the GEO facility coming up much, if ever, in conversations with her city council colleagues.
"I guarantee you people will continue to talk about this and bring this up to council, at almost every council meeting, just because it’s in the forefront of our city and it’s being blasted everywhere — on social media, on the news," Lawson says.
But some on council question how involved the city can get in a federally contracted facility. Françoise Bergan, who represents Ward VI and responded to an interview request through email, says she's still gathering information.
"I am still gathering the facts (reading reports). And trying to ascertain how our city can be involved since it’s under federal jurisdiction. Do you have any information that you’d like to share with me?"
Westword responded by sending Bergan multiple articles about the facility, to which the councilwoman answered, "Thank you. I have read the reports and the articles. I appreciate the information."
Bergan also takes issue with the verbiage used by the opposition, including when four of the nine people who testified about the facility at the June 24 city council meeting made reference to concentration camps.
“I’m appalled that a few of you equated men being held in the detention center to what happened in Nazi Germany, where six million Jews were exterminated," she said at the meeting. "We are not putting people in a gas chamber. We are not performing surgical operations on children, men and women. The comparison truly trivializes the atrocities. I don’t need to hear that kind of crap.” Bergan also noted that her mother lived under Nazi occupation and "endured hardship and starvation."
Berzins emailed the following statement to Westword:
"Of course I'm distressed about the things I've heard about the GEO facility," she wrote. "They are humanitarian issues and shouldn't be dismissed by anyone. Where we must be careful is confusing the Aurora facility with what's happening at the border. I've heard that happen. In case no one has told you, Aurora has been working with Tri-County Health over these issues. They are the ones who have the authority to inspect the food and health of the detainees — not Aurora. Aurora does not [have] authority over health and human services, that's the county. We also don't have authority over federal issues. This does not mean our hearts aren't breaking for these sick detainees. Our Aurora Police does not get involved in Federal policing such as ICE. The same rule applies with the city getting involved with the detention facility. I believe our federal Congressman is working with the detention facility, as he should. Local rules do not apply to federal rules. Tri-County Health is working to inspect and help the ill detainees. We must all be careful not to make this a political matter and be divisive. Lives are not political. If we work together, we'll be stronger."
Councilman Johnny Watson initially said he was willing to speak about the facility, but did not return subsequent requests for an interview. Councilmembers Dave Gruber and Bob Roth did not return multiple requests for comment.
Aurora has a council/manager form of government, in which the city manager plays a significant role in the city's operations. Jim Twombly, Aurora's city manager, declined an interview request, instead offering this statement: "This is a complex issue that we understand affects many people. We appreciate the concerns that have been expressed regarding private detention centers, but immigration enforcement remains a federal responsibility, and ICE’s operations are under federal control. Our role related to the facility, and immigration matters in general, is limited to enforcing local laws, providing public safety and emergency response in the city."
Hiltz, for her part, plans to introduce an ordinance later this month that will require the GEO facility to notify the Aurora Fire Department whenever there is an infectious-disease quarantine so firefighters are aware of conditions at the facility in the event of an emergency.
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“We’re looking at what individual things we can do that will collectively have an impact,” Hiltz says. For that ordinance and others like it, Hiltz will have to win over her colleagues on council, a majority of whom she characterizes as leaning right.
Congressman Crow is looking at how the federal government can increase oversight at immigration detention facilities. In May, he introduced a bill that would require facilities to abide by an inspection request from a member of Congress within 48 hours. And at the beginning of this month, Crow also called for ICE to end its detention contracts with for-profit companies like GEO Group. Neguse is pushing for more oversight and wants a congressional hearing to look into GEO Group and the facilities it runs.
Councilwoman Murillo says that a continued conversation about the facility at council meetings is a positive step.
"There have been people who have been advocating for this and fighting a lot longer than I’ve been in this role," she says. "And I think for them, it’s about time."