Colorado's Congressional Democrats Inspect GEO Detention Facility in Aurora

Colorado's Democratic members of the House of Representatives toured the GEO immigration detention facility on July 22.
Colorado's Democratic members of the House of Representatives toured the GEO immigration detention facility on July 22. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
On June 25, Congressman Joe Neguse sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee asking for an oversight hearing on the private prison company GEO Group and the immigration detention facilities it operates, such as the one in Aurora.

In response to Neguse, GEO Group emailed Westword, saying that it was open to giving Neguse a tour of the Aurora location. "We would welcome the opportunity to sit down with him and his staff to discuss his concerns and tour the facility," wrote Pablo Paez, a GEO Group vice president.

Today, July 22, Neguse and his colleagues took up GEO Group on that offer, joining Congressman Jason Crow for his office's now weekly inspection of the facility. The tour brought together Colorado's four Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including Neguse, Crow, Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter.

"We need to close this facility. We shouldn't be having private detention facilities in the United States of America," said DeGette while standing just outside the facility after the group's visit.

The weekly inspections by Crow's office are designed to improve conditions at the facility, which has been plagued by allegations of medical neglect, sub-standard living conditions and infectious-disease outbreaks. That was the first time that all four of Colorado's Democratic members of the House had visited. GEO Group runs the facility through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The representatives visited a women's dormitory at the facility, which houses 48 women and is half the size of a gymnasium, according to DeGette, who noted that the facility is clean. But DeGette also said that the women she met complained about delayed medical care.

"Some of those women asked for aspirin for headaches or menstrual cramps, and they didn't get any kind of response for a week. Well, that's not going to solve that problem," she said.

Neguse and Crow have called for the federal government to end its detention contracts with for-profit companies. During the press conference that followed the congressional delegation's visit, Westword asked Perlmutter if he agreed with his fellow Democratic representatives that the government should not use private prisons for immigration detention.

"I never supported the private sector handling. Yeah, so, from the time I was in the state Senate, where I objected to private contractors owning our private prison facilities, I still don't think it's a good idea because there's a potential profit motive behind all of this, and that doesn't make sense to me. But in terms of their willingness after Jason pushed them and pushed them and pushed them to let us come in and tour the facility, I want to just end with a thank you for that," responded Perlmutter, who represented Aurora before new congressional districts were drawn in 2011.

The congressional representatives were also asked about the rumored cancellation of a visit by Vice President Mike Pence to the Aurora facility. (Pence was in Colorado on July 22, stumping for Senator Cory Gardner and President Donald Trump at campaign fundraisers in Windsor and Aspen, respectively.)

"We would reiterate our open invitation to anyone who wants to come and join us in our transparency and oversight, whether that be the president, the vice president, any member of the House or Senate. We think government works best when it's open and transparent, and we would welcome anyone to join us in this effort," said Crow.

Acting ICE director Matthew Albence was in the Denver metro area on July 22 to "visit various ICE offices in the area to meet with ICE employees," according to ICE spokeswoman Alethea Smock.

Crow has been pushing for more congressional oversight of immigrant detention facilities. The freshman Democrat first attempted to visit the GEO facility in February but wasn't allowed beyond the lobby. ICE says that it is willing to allow politicians to tour the facility but that it needs advance notice. Crow toured the facility about three weeks later.

After his initial tour request was denied, in May Crow introduced a bill that would require facilities to comply with inspection requests from members of Congress within 48 hours. That bill is still working its way through the House; language from it is also in the Homeland Security Appropriations bill.

The Aurora immigrant detention facility has been a hot topic in recent weeks for more than just conditions there. On July 12, a group of protesters took down the American flag above the facility and replaced it with a Mexican one and two anti-police flags.

The Aurora Police Department is still investigating the incident. The department says that it has been receiving fake tips and spammy advertising emails, which likely stem from calls to action that some groups, like the Colorado Springs Anti-Fascists, have posted on social media to discourage police efforts.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.