Aurora is home to the Aurora Contract Detention Facility, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center run by private prison company GEO Group.
"This company is engaged in egregious human-rights violations in abuses that have been confirmed in reports by ICE and the government," Councilmember Allison Hiltz, who proposed the letter, said just before the vote at the March 1 council meeting.
Immigrant advocates and lawyers have long decried conditions at the Aurora ICE facility, pointing to instances of medical neglect, forced-labor allegations and infectious-disease outbreaks as examples of the sub-standard quality of care there. The facility currently houses around 200 ICE detainees, as well as a few dozen U.S. Marshals detainees. But the facility has space for over 1,500 ICE detainees, a capacity that it got close to reaching in the summer of 2019, during a season of increased border crossings. Proponents of using private prisons typically argue that they keep costs down; opponents say that's at the cost of human rights.
The Biden administration has already issued an executive order instructing the Department of Justice to stop renewing contracts with private prison companies. So far, however, Biden has not ordered the Department of Homeland Security to cut ties with private prison companies, such as the GEO Group, much to the dissatisfaction of immigrant-rights advocates.
At the March 1 meeting,councilmembers voting in favor included three Democrats, two former Democrats who are now unaffiliated (Hiltz and Nicole Johnston) and a former Republican who is now unaffiliated. Four Republicans voted against it. One of those who voted no, Councilmember Curtis Gardner, said he did so because of his views on the power of the executive branch.
"I won’t support signing this letter purely because it’s not what the role of the president is," Gardner said, adding that he considers this an issue Congress should handle. "I do agree with at least the spirit of the letter in calling out private prisons in general. I think private prisons have perverse incentives, and I think that’s something we should move away from generally."
Councilmember Marsha Berzins said she thought the letter should go to Congressman Jason Crow, a Democrat who represents Aurora, instead of to President Biden. Then she added: "Honestly, I think it’s very inappropriate for us to call out a specific business and ask for it to be closed. I don’t think we should get involved in that. Next time, are we going to say, I think you should close Amazon, and Home Depot, or some other company, because they’re making too much money?"
Councilmember Dave Gruber, who also voted against the proposal, promised to send his own letter to Biden arguing against the sentiments penned by Hiltz.
Although Mayor Mike Coffman, a former U.S. Representative for the congressional district that includes Aurora, said he opposed sending the letter, his signature will go on it.
“It is disappointing that the city would officially attack and disparage a long-standing, legally operating contractor that has been in the Aurora community for more than three decades and has operated pursuant to contracts with Democratic and Republican administrations," says GEO Group in response to a request for comment. “As a service provider to the federal government, GEO plays no role in passing immigration laws, and we have never taken a position on immigration policies, whether it be the length of stay at immigration processing centers or the adjudication and outcome of immigration proceedings. Our only mission is to deliver high-quality services in a safe and humane environment to those entrusted to our care in compliance with the federal government’s Performance-Based National Detention Standards established under the Obama-Biden Administration.
“The message being sent from the Aurora City Council is a denigration to the hundreds of front-line employees, many of whom are local residents in the community, who strive every day to provide the highest quality services to the individuals entrusted to our care.”
But Aurora City Council is not alone in asking the Biden administration to cut ties between Homeland Security and private prison companies; in late January, Crow and and 74 other members of Congress, including all of the Democratic representatives in Colorado's delegation, sent a letter to President Biden requesting just that.
"The Federal Government has a responsibility to ensure the safe and humane treatment of those in its care, and that must be as true for individuals detained in private prisons in DOJ custody as it is for individuals detained in private prisons in the Department of Homeland Security custody. We stand ready to work with the Biden Administration to end the use of private immigration detention facilities by ICE," the lawmakers wrote.
The administration seems headed in that direction. Last month, it issued a memo to all ICE employees regarding new enforcement priorities that indicate a major reduction of enforcement actions, which had ramped up under President Donald Trump. And Congress is considering a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants now living in the U.S.
In recent months, Aurora City Council debated and ultimately rejected ordinances that would have set up an immigrant legal defense fund and certain protections for undocumented immigrants, including a provision that would limit city government cooperation with ICE. Votes on those ordinances, which were preceded by tense, hyper-partisan debate, were split 5-5, with Mayor Coffman serving as the tie-breaking "no" vote.
This story has been updated to include the statement from GEO Group, as well as the changed affiliations of some councilmembers.