Over the past four years, Florida-based GEO Group has tried but failed to build what it calls an immigrant processing center somewhere south of Chicago.
GEO Group is contracted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to build such a center to process adult undocumented immigrants whose cases have already been decided by a court.
The immigrants are literally waiting for a plane ride out of the country.
GEO Group tried in Crete, Illinois in 2012 but that died following a loud outcry by immigrant rights activists.
It tried two years ago in the affluent Northwest Indiana city of Hobart. GEO Group was turned away though it never entered a formal proposal following more opposition.
In November, it reached out to the mayor of one of the more economically stressed cities in the United States, Gary, Indiana. But less than two weeks after saying she had been for it, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson changed her mind and pulled her support in part due to vocal opposition.
But just five months after that swift rejection, GEO Group is pushing hard to make this proposal count. It’s already been meeting with small groups of residents to build support.
“Once we get through the misinformation of what the project is or isn’t, we actually have some pretty good conversations, turning from why should they be supportive to how they can be supportive,” GEO Group spokesman Armando Salah, told WBEZ on Friday.
Salah says more GEO Group officials will be meeting with residents this week to continue touting why this project makes sense for the city.
Salah says he is having to set the record straight against opponents who view the project as a prison.
“The opposition has been able to frame this issue incorrectly as being a symbol of national immigration policy and being able to frame this facility as something that it isn’t. It takes a lot of work and takes a lot of time to spend with people to address those misconceptions,” Salah says. Salah says opponents view the center as a prison.
“That is the greatest misconception,” Salah says. “This is an immigration processing center that is to process individuals who are in violation of U.S. immigration laws and are awaiting relocation. They have already been adjudicated and a determination has been made for them to be relocated to their country of origin. This is that final step of being relocated. This is not a long-term imprisonment facility like a state penitentiary or a county jail.”
To build the $65 million, 785-bed center that is designed for adults, GEO Group needs a zoning variance to build on property near the Gary Chicago International Airport.
It will go before the Gary Board of Zoning Appeals on April 12.
Salah says although detainees from the proposed center would be transported back to their country of origin on planes that depart the Gary Chicago airport, its close proximity to the airport is of little consequence.
That’s because ICE is already using the Gary airport to transport undocumented immigrants.
“A weekly ICE charter flight flies Mexican nationals from the Gary/Chicago International Airport to the US/Mexico border for removal,” confirmed ICE Chicago office spokeswoman Gail Montenegro. “ ICE has identified a need for an immigration detention facility within the greater-Chicago area. 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 can be near their families, attorneys, community resources and the ICE Field Office. ICE is committed to making sensible detention reforms, and we continue to look for other locations to achieve that goal.”
Gary City Councilman Herb Smith Jr. says he has not taken a position on project but will consider it.
“I don’t really know what their proposal is. I’m basically a black sheet of paper,” Smith says. “I’m willing to listen. That’s my job as a councilman is to listen to the community, to the proposal of this, those who are for it and those who are against and then I’ll make as an informed decision.”
Knowing the economic situation in Gary, Smith says when any firm proposes to bring jobs to the city, with an unemployment rate of 7 percent, higher than the state rate of 4.7 percent, he needs to listen.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t do my due diligence and not thoroughly vet this company because of the possible opportunity for 200 jobs and a $65 million investment in this community,” Smith says. “I cannot just not walk away from that and act like it doesn’t exist.”
However, Smith says he’s unsure why so many are opposed to the project since it’s similar to jobs in county jails or medium-security prisons that are near Gary.
He also says there was once opposition to Lake County, Indiana officials relocating a juvenile detention center out of Gary to Crown Point.
“It’s a business and Gary is a city in need. It would be just a different form of business here,” Smith says. “ We have to go through this conversation with the community.”
But some Gary residents say the city doesn’t need a center that “tears families apart” and are ready to fight against it.
“No job is sometimes better than a bad job,” says Ruth Needleman, a retired history professor from Indiana University Northwest in Gary. “It locks people into work that is inhumane and it also says to the world that we are slave labor, come and get us. We do not want that image.”
Rev. Cheryl Rivera of the Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations says the kinds of jobs GEO Group wants to bring aren’t welcomed in Gary.
“It doesn’t fit here. This is a community that is 90 percent black. We are descendants of slaves. We don’t want no part of a slave camp.”
Rivera also feels that if Gary officials approves GEO Group’s request, it would cause a rift between predominately black Gary with its predominately Hispanic neighbors in East Chicago, Indiana, about a mile away from where the center would be located.
As for Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson her opposition to the project has not changed, according to her spokeswoman.
Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana Bureau Reporter. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.