The mayor of Gary, Indiana is pulling her support for the building of a detention center to house undocumented immigrants in her city.
The lure of 200 to 300 new jobs for the struggling Steel City had been the rationale for Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson’s initial support.
“It wasn’t just the jobs but it was infrastructure around the airport that we were going to have help with, along with tax base. These are taxpaying, corporate citizens,” Freeman-Wilson told WBEZ late Wednesday evening. “This was a very difficult decision.”
The for-profit Florida-based prison company GEO Group was looking at building a $65 million processing facility for undocumented immigrants just north of the Gary Chicago International Airport. The project could have generated up to $1 million in property taxes for a city that’s struggling to pay its police and fire personnel and keep many of its public schools open.
But soon after it was announced, opposition began to swell.
Opponents packed the Gary City Council chambers earlier this week when the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals was going to meet to discuss the issue. The board put off talking about GEO Group’s proposal for another two weeks.
In the meantime, opponents began to develop plans for a protest march this weekend.
“I understand Gary’s situation. I understand the mayor is trying to find solutions to it but for a few gold coins, it’s not right,” said Antonio Barreda of the Community Coalition for Immigrants of Northwest Indiana.
Gary has an unemployment rate of 18 percent, more than three times the state average at 4.5 percent. But Freeman Wilson, a former Indiana attorney general and civil rights attorney, says she began to share activists’ concerns.
“The detention of individuals is not consistent with what I fought for in terms of civil and human rights,” Freeman-Wilson said. “I understand that it has to be done. I understand that there are folks who certainly ought to be deported but I just didn’t think that was the type of economic development we wanted to see in the city of Gary.”
Since 2011, GEO Group has been trying to build an immigration processing center in the Chicago area without much success. Past attempts in south suburban Crete and in Hobart, just east of Gary, failed.
“The GEO Group approached the City of Gary in search of a potential processing facility in an industrial area. While we are disappointed in the city’s decision to withdraw from the potential opportunity, The GEO Group successfully operates safe and secure facilities all over the world and employs thousands of men and women in communities across the U.S. and overseas,” Pablo Paez, Vice President of Corporate Relations for The GEO Group, stated in a news release. “We look forward to continuing our efforts to identify and work with a partner in the region to bring new economic opportunities and provide the services the Federal government requires in this part of the country.”