With the passage of anti-illegal immigration laws in recent years, Indiana might be considered prime real estate for the federal government to house a detention center to process and detain illegal immigrants. That could be why federal officials are eyeing the Northwest Indiana city of Hobart, which has some residents concerned.
GEO Group, Inc., a private company that runs prison facilities, recently purchased land in Hobart, leading to speculation that the firm could be planning a detention center there.
As a result, more than three dozen residents packed a Hobart City Council meeting in protest Wednesday night.
“That property specifically already has an oak forest growing on it," said resident David Woronecki-Ellis. "So, I would hate to see it turn into a detention facility, and [if the plan is to build a detention center,] making profit off of people’s misery is just morally wrong.”
Another resident, William Krebes, said Hobart’s motto is “The Friendly City.” He said he’s lived in Hobart for 30 years and now has grandchildren in the city.
“The reason we came here is because Hobart is a nice town," Krebes said. "For some reason, a prison doesn’t fit that image that we’ve been creating over the last 40 years."
Chicagoans may be familiar with Hobart for the Southlake Mall on U.S. Route 30 or the town's County Line Apple Orchard.
City officals confirmed at Wednesday's meeting that GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, Fla., recently purchased land on Hobart’s western corridor near Robinson Lake and I-65, just north of 61st Avenue.
The City of Gary’s eastern border sits across I-65 from Hobart, where the center could be built.
The Hobart resident who previously owned the land in question told the council that he sold the property to a firm, but the actual buyer was kept confidential. He said he didn’t know a detention facility could be built on the land.
GEO Group, which did not have a representative at the meeting, told WBEZ that it could not confirm the purchasing of the land or its plans to open a facility in Hobart.
“Our company is a publicly-traded Real Estate Investment Trust and as such as part of our business, we routinely engage in real estate transactions including the purchase and sale of properties and land around the country,” said GEO Group spokesman Pablo E. Paez. “As a matter of policy, our company cannot comment on specific real estate transactions, and it would [be] premature to discuss any potential plans for any of our development properties around the country.”
GEO Group currently runs two facilities near Indianapolis but neither handles illegal immigrants.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also would not confirm whether Hobart is on their radar for possible site locations.
In summer 2012, a site proposal in south suburban Crete, Ill. was rejected by residents. In fact, some of those Crete residents who opposed the plan for their town arrived in Hobart to voice their ongoing objection.
But ICE’s desire for a center continues, and so does its search.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has identified a need for an immigration detention facility within the greater Chicago area," ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro told WBEZ. "This proposed facility is part of the agency’s long-term nationwide effort to reform the current immigration detention system by improving the conditions of confinement, and by locating detainees closer to where they are apprehended so that they be can near their families, attorneys, community resources and the ICE Field Office."
“ICE is currently performing market research in the Chicago area and released a Request for Information (RFI) on Dec. 6, 2012 on the Federal Business Opportunities web portal. ICE is committed to making sensible detention reforms, and we will continue to look for other locations to achieve that goal.”
Nonetheless, Hobart Mayor Brian Snedecor says neither ICE or GEO Group have submitted an official proposal to the city. He says it would be unfair and unethical to make a comment on whether the city supports or reject the idea.
"I want people to be treated fairly and that includes immigration decisions," said Snedecor, who is also the city’s former police chief. "People are human and deserve to be treated in a fair and democratic process. But we need an opportunity to vet this, to know if there is ever going to be something. There may be nothing that comes of this. Let the process take place.”
Snedecor confirmed there have been preliminary talks with city officials, but such talks are routinely kept confidential with firms looking to do business with the city.
If and when an official proposal is put forth, approvals must come from the city’s planning and zoning departments, along with final approval from the City Council.
Michael Puente covers Indiana news for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.