HOBART | Community members packed Augustana Lutheran Church on Sunday for a forum about possible plans to build an immigration detention center on 40 acres of property once owned by St. Sava Church.
GEO Group, a Florida-based company that builds and operates correctional and detention facilities around the world, purchased the land, east of Interstate 65 near Robinson Lake in Hobart, in November.
Many residents are concerned about a possibility that GEO would build a 788-bed immigrant detention facility that would serve the Chicago area. Merrillville attorney John Bushemi, who serves as local legal counsel for GEO, has said the company has no immediate plans for land and no proposal has been submitted to Hobart for use of the property.
The Rev. Charles Strietelmeier, of Augustana Lutheran, said the Hobart City Council “has been very circumspect about this.”
“I think they’re keeping open minds at this stage, although I do sense there is a difference of opinion within the City Council at this point,” he said. “Certainly, conversations with our City Council representatives would be well in order.
Strietelmeier said the issue will reach a critical point when it goes before the Board of Zoning Appeals.
“If they don’t approve it, nothing happens,” he said.
Attorney Fred Tsao, of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said private prison companies like GEO are highly profitable. Their business model is “to keep people locked up," Tsao said.
Having detainees in cells is the only way such companies get paid, Tsao said. GEO’s net profit is about $300 million to $400 million a year, he said.
Tsao said that profit also means “cutting corners” and skimping on care for detainees.
Tsao said U.S. lawmakers are close to passing immigration reform, which means 11 million people who might otherwise be subjected to immigration enforcement and detention could gain lawful status over the next few years.
“These individuals would no longer be subject to imprisonment,” he said. “Which means if we build this new hulking immigration facility, where would the people come from? We might have a big white elephant in this community.”
Samuel Love, a Gary resident and activist who lives about a mile from Robinson Lake, said an immigration prison would have implications beyond Hobart.
Love said one of the ways companies like GEO cut corners is in the way they transport inmates. In this case, it means transportation on streets through not only Hobart but Gary and even Merrillville, Lake Station and New Chicago, Love said.
“They buy old, broken-down trucks and hire people not fully credentialed and qualified to drive them,” he said.
Sandy O’Brien, of Concerned Citizens of Hobart, said the land could be used for other purposes that would be more environmentally friendly and draw people to Hobart.
“Nature deserves to be protected,” she said.
O’Brien said the Hobart Marsh Plan recommended a trailhead and nature center for the property. She said it was suggested that GEO’s charitable giving could fund the Marsh Plan implementation, and GEO on its website says it gives almost $1 million a year to the 98 hosting communities that have facilities.
“Divided all up it’s about $10,000 a community and they really spread it around,” she said. “Hobart Marsh would potentially get a little bit, but who would want to be there? That would be the downside.”
A follow-up meeting will be at 2 p.m. Sunday at Unitarian Church, 497 Main St., Hobart.