A proposal to build a controversial immigrant detention center in Gary, Indiana has hit a snag.
Florida-based GEO Group hopes to build a $65 million facility to hold undocumented immigrants as they await travel to their country of origin.
The company says it would employ up to 200 people and would run the facility for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
GEO Group needs a zoning variance to build the facility on abandoned industrial land just north of the Gary/Chicago International Airport.
Gary’s Board of Zoning Appeals voted 3-1 to send an unfavorable recommendation to the Gary City Council, which meets next week.
The vote came after about two hours worth of testimony, mostly from opponents of the project.
Opponents — include a diverse group of activists, clergy members and others — who say this facility would be harmful to Gary, even though it desperately needs jobs.
“We will not settle for for-profit prisons in our community. Absolutely not,” Rev. Cheryl Rivera said. “We’re going to make sure that this cancer does not come into our community.”
This is the fourth attempt to build an immigrant detention center somewhere south of Chicago.
In 2012, U.S. Immigration and Enforcement (ICE) failed to secure a site in south suburban Crete, Ill., a short distance from Gary.
Two years ago, GEO Group, on behalf of ICE, approached Hobart, Indiana but the opposition grew too strong.
Late last year, GEO Group approached the City of Gary for the facility. After initially supporting the idea, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson changed her mind.
But just last month, GEO Group tried again, with a bigger pushed aimed at convincing residents that jobs the facility would bring makes economic sense.
“We’re going to build a facility that is going to benefit this community. We’re going to engage in environmental clean up (of the site) that is going to benefit this community,” says prominent Northwest Indiana attorney Jim Wieser, who represented GEO group in the meeting. “We’re going to employ people and we’re going to create jobs.”
Some of Wieser’s comments were shouted down by activists who chanted “Shut GEO down!”
Some protesters were removed by police for being disruptive at the meeting.
Most in the attendance spoke against the proposal including the former mayor of Gary, Richard Hatcher.
Hatcher, who was active in the fight for civil rights in the 60s, says the detention facility is not the right fit for Gary.
“Why don’t we go and find as many so called undocumented immigrants in this country and bring them to Gary and welcome them as citizens of our community and help us to build our own community? That would be a great thing to do,” Hatcher said. “Not bringing immigrants to this city to be locked up and detained.”
The board’s recommendation will be considered by the full Gary City Council next week. The City Council can still grant GEO Group’s request for a zoning variance. Even if the City Council approves the zoning variance, GEO Group would still need to get more approvals from the Gary Planning Commission and City Council to receive final approvals to build the facility. Those approvals could be months away.