Immigrant-rights activists and city officials are concerned that a recent addition to the immigration detention facility in Aurora, the largest in Colorado, was done in secret and will only exacerbate problems at the facility.
In January, Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorized GEO Group, which runs the facility through a contract with ICE, to open a remodeled 432-bed annex next to the facility for detainees arrested on immigration charges. The annex has increased the capacity of the center to 1,532, according to GEO Group.
"As of Jan. 31, there are 256 total detainees housed in this new Annex with 128 new detainees expected to arrive within the next week," said Jeffrey Lynch, Denver field office director for ICE enforcement and removal operations, in an email to Westword.
Aurora City Council member Allison Hiltz condemns the immigration agency over the addition. "ICE's decision to allow the expansion of its facility without so much as a hint of notice to local elected officials or the public is incomprehensible," Hiltz explains. "I can think of only two reasons for keeping this a secret: fear of public backlash or incompetence on the part of its management team. And neither inspires confidence in their ability to responsibly oversee human lives."
Immigrant-rights activists are concerned about conditions in the facility. A housing unit is under quarantine for 21 days because of a chicken pox outbreak, the second in three months.
Elizabeth Jordan, a lawyer who works on immigration detention accountability at the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, says that the new annex will only make health issues and other problems at the facility worse.
"The baseline at Aurora is already pretty unacceptable in terms of delays, under-staffing and medical attention. What piling on this many new people implicates is concerning," she says.
In June, ICE started moving hundreds of its detainees to federal prisons across the country because the government lacked enough space in its immigration detention center, according to an NPR report. In a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and Jordan's organization in August 2018, lawyers representing plaintiffs in a prison in California argued that conditions there were deplorable.
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"As a result of the unconstitutional treatment of these civil detainees, many have expressed a desire to be returned, immediately, to their countries of origin — forgoing their claims for immigration relief altogether — because they would rather face the dangers back home than be imprisoned in these abysmal conditions," part of the complaint reads. As of October 2018, ICE had largely stopped using federal prisons to house detainees, according to NPR.
Jordan is worried that something similar could happen at the recently opened annex in Aurora: "We are concerned that the facilities are unprepared for this influx [of new detainees], which could result in really horrifying conditions for people that have to sit in these wings while they get up and running." She says it is unclear whether the facility will add staff to manage the additional detainees. We have reached out to ICE for comment and will update this story if and when we get a response.
In October 2017, ICE and the Department of Homeland Security started trying "to identify multiple possible detention sites to hold criminal aliens and other immigration violators." GEO Group put forth a bid for its then-empty annex in Aurora as a possible landing site for new detainees, according to documents obtained by the National Immigrant Justice Center,
Immigration detention centers around the U.S. have been expanding in recent years. As the Daily Beast reported in November 2018, ICE detentions are at an all-time high, and the agency reported to Congress that as of October 20, 2018, "its average daily population in detention had reached 44,631 people."