A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to tour the ICE detention facility in Aurora, Colo., owned and operated by The GEO Group. This facility has been at the center of the immigration-enforcement debate ever since protesters replaced the facility's American flag with a Mexican flag and defaced a Blue Lives Matter flag earlier this summer. That event prompted the Denver City Council to cancel all existing contracts with the prison company, putting the future of several halfway houses at risk.
The "Abolish ICE" protesters said they were protesting against the treatment of the inmates at the facility, but I saw conditions that treated inmates humanely and with care.
The facility holds about 1,400 illegal-alien inmates. Approximately 15% are women, and no one under the age of 18 has ever been detained at the facility. GEO says the facility has never exceeded capacity.
At the time of my visit, there were illegal aliens from 64 different countries. Some of the countries represented included: Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, Cuba, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, and India.
While the facility is owned and operated by GEO -- a for-profit, publicly-traded company on the NYSE -- there is a heavy federal presence. At the entrance to the facility, there are offices for approximately 30 ICE officers, along with three immigration court rooms and meeting rooms where immigration attorneys can meet with their clients.
Critics have claimed that privately owned facilities like the one in Aurora don't have enough government oversight. But between the round-the-clock presence of these ICE officers and regular inspections by the Inspector General and others, nothing could be further from the truth. Both the ICE officers and immigration court officers I spoke with said they have a great relationship with the GEO staff, and many of the GEO staff are former government employees themselves.
Members of Congress and the press provide additional oversight, including Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) who visits weekly. Rep. Crow provides a detailed report of his weekly visits on his Congressional website.
WHAT YOU WON'T SEE OR HEAR
There have been a number of reports critical of the conditions at the Aurora facility, but here are the things you won't hear from the press...
- Five detainee areas -- Illegal aliens are housed in one of five different areas: 1) low-risk (typically illegal border crossers with no known record), 2) medium-risk (criminal illegal aliens with low-level offenses, such as DUI or repeat illegal border crossings), 3) high-risk (criminal aliens with serious convictions, such as rape and homicide), 4) women's dorm, and 5) restrictive housing.
Restrictive housing has come under some scrutiny because it's been compared to solitary confinement. I was able to tour this area, and it is not solitary confinement. All restrictive housing detainees are housed together, not by themselves, and share cells with at least one other inmate to reduce the risk of self-harm. Most inmates placed into restrictive housing request it because they do not wish to be put in the general population. According to Rep. Crow's most recent report, there are currently 5 illegal aliens in restrictive housing, and all requested that they be put there.
- Recreation -- Each prison area includes televisions tuned to stations in the languages of the detainees, tablets for surfing the internet and video chatting with family and friends, telephones, ping-pong tables and other games, video game consoles, microwave ovens, vending machines, and access to the "yard" that comes equipped with a basketball court, corn-hole, and weight lifting equipment. There have been complaints from detainees to the Inspector General about the lack of a soccer field. GEO says it is in the process of adding a field to the facility.
- Law library -- There is a full law library with books in different languages and computer stations with access to LexisNexus. Detainees are allowed to access the library up to 15 hours each week and are given flash drives to save files relevant to their case.
- Medical facilities -- The Aurora facility contains a full medical and dental facility as well as a pharmacy and tele-psych support. All illegal aliens go through a medical screening at in-processing, including a chest x-ray to check for communicable diseases. New inmates also receive hepatitis shots for 30 days.
There's been some concern about the facility's handling of inmates with contagious diseases, but you have to keep in mind that these diseases were brought into the facility by the inmates themselves, and many of the inmates have never seen a doctor until entering the facility.
- Meals -- GEO provides the detainees three meals per day (menus are included in Rep. Crow's weekly reports). Illegal aliens can volunteer to work in the kitchen or with housekeeping to earn money that they'll receive when they're released.
DENVER CANCELS GEO
Partly due to opposition to The GEO Group's role in immigration enforcement, and partly due to opposition to private prison companies in general, the Denver City Council voted in August to cancel its current contracts with the company. GEO runs several halfway houses in the city, and the council's decision could impact approximately 500 inmates.
I also had the opportunity to visit a few of these facilities and talk with some of the residents. If the facilities close, most residents -- convicted primarily on drug charges -- would have to return to prison. However, under public pressure, the city council recently voted to reinstate the contracts, at least until alternatives to the privately run facilities can be identified. It's ironic that the same elected officials pushing to use Alternatives to Detention (ATD) in immigration enforcement are voting to shut down the use of Alternatives to Detention for U.S. citizens.
"[F]or the system to be credible, people actually have to be deported..."
The late Civil Rights icon and chair of the last bipartisan Commission for Immigration Reform, Barbara Jordan, said, "The top priorities for detention and removal, of course, are criminal aliens. But for the system to be credible, people actually have to be deported at the end of the process."
The best way to deter future illegal immigration is to eliminate the jobs magnet by requiring all employers to use E-Verify. But E-Verify won't completely eliminate illegal immigration, so there will still be a need for interior enforcement, which means that illegal aliens will have to be detained. Therefore, detention facilities, like the GEO facility in Aurora, Colo., are a necessary tool for ICE to enforce the nation's immigration laws.
ICE could run detention facilities themselves, but the ICE officers I spoke with in Colorado all said they don't want to be in the business of running prisons; they want to enforce immigration laws. Therefore, the best option is to contract with private prison companies that can focus solely on care for inmates. Again, some of the criticism directed at companies like GEO is opposition to the for-profit prison industry, in general, but most criticism is due to opposition to any enforcement of our immigration laws.
Still, anti-enforcement protesters continue to harass the men and women of ICE, along with the management and staff from GEO. In fact, Abolish ICE Denver has an event planned next week to protest outside the private residence of the prison warden's home in Aurora.
As several of the ICE officers noted, they're simply enforcing the laws passed by Congress. People who take issue with those laws should take it up with their elected officials, not the men and women tasked with enforcing those laws. One of the officers said it best, saying ICE has been doing the same thing for 20 years, "the only thing that's changed is the politicians."
CHRIS CHMIELENSKI is the Deputy Director of NumbersUSA
Updated: Tue, Sep 10th 2019 @ 3:47pm EDT