GARY | Many Gary City Council members are reserving judgement about a possible immigration processing and detention facility that could be located adjacent to the Gary Chicago International Airport.
The GEO Group, Inc., which manages similar facilities around the country — some of which have been criticized for their treatment of immigrants — is seeking a zoning variance to be able to use the land for a detention center that could temporarily house several hundred people.
According to documents filed by the company, the "proposed facility will properly manage individuals who are in immigration proceedings before a federal immigration judge."
The company said the facility would represent an approximate $65 million investment and create possibly more than 200 jobs. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, who is supportive of the proposal, said it is her understanding the wages would fall in the $13 to $15 per hour range.
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In its filing with the city, GEO contends the proposed facility "will be a workforce anchor" in the community "by employing several hundred individuals with a variety of skills and education."
The company said the facility will create jobs in service, law enforcement, administration and medical employment.
"Qualified individuals of the community will be provided opportunities for these new jobs," according to the company.
It also said the workforce coming into the community will generate additional business and economic activity in the vicinity.
Freeman-Wilson said the city estimated that the facility could pay about $1 million annually in property taxes.
"I can use that," she said, adding that she estimated the city overall receives about $22 million to $23 million a year in property tax revenue.
Some council members, including Council President Kyle Allen Sr. and Vice President Ron Brewer Sr., said they want more information before rendering an opinion about the proposal. Rebecca "Becky" Wyatt, the incoming District 1 councilwoman, also said she didn't know enough about the project to comment.
Councilwoman Linda Barnes-Caldwell, 5th District, said from what she has heard, "I think it is a wonderful idea. It will bring revenue to the city and jobs. And I think it is in an ideal location."
Both Freeman-Wilson and Barnes-Caldwell said they have not received any calls yet from constituents about the issue.
Freeman-Wilson said it would be a secure building and "we're not talking about a prison, we're talking about a detention facility."
While some of those moving through what is also referred to as a "processing center" may have committed criminal acts, Freeman-Wilson said some may be people who are accused of not entering the country properly.
HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
In addition to operating detention centers, the GEO Group, Inc. is one of the largest private operators of correctional facilities in the U.S., and also has properties overseas. GEO has been the subject of various reports and complaints about alleged human rights violations at the facilities.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been critical in general of private prison operations, including those run by GEO, and said they have been "linked to numerous cases of violence and atrocious conditions."
In 2014, following a multiyear investigation, the organization released a report about what it characterized as "shocking abuse and mistreatment" of some immigrants held at some private prisons. A 2012 U.S. Department of Justice report also found that there were violations of the constitutional rights of youths held at a Mississippi correctional center run by GEO.
The company contends it is committed to protecting human rights of the people in its care. As of June 30, 2014, the company owned or managed about 78,000 beds at 97 correctional, detention and re-entry facilities.
Gail Montenegro, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement that "the safety, well-being and housing conditions of those in ICE custody are of utmost importance to the agency. ICE has made important modifications and improvements to the oversight and review of the facilities used to house detainees. The agency remains committed to ensuring that all individuals in our custody are housed humanely and that they have access to legal counsel, visitation, recreation, and quality medical and mental health."
LONG TERM EFFORT
The facility that could be constructed in Gary would be constructed in response to a request for proposals expected to be issued by ICE, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security.
According to a statement from the agency, "the decision to move forward with a request for proposals is pending."
However, John M. Hurley, senior vice president with GEO Corrections & Detention, stated in an earnings call in August that "ICE is expected to issue a procurement later this year for a new 800-bed detention facility in the Chicago area."
According to ICE, the 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."
NOT THE FIRST TIME
GEO, in late 2013, had purchased a 40-acre site in the 4100 block of West 49th Avenue in Hobart. A number of Hobart residents were opposed to the company opening a detention center on that site and signs against the building can still be seen in the yards of homes in the area. Mayor Brian Snedecor wrote to the company opposing having such a facility there and the company never submitted any formal proposal to the city.
Snedecor, however, said company representatives did meet with him prior to purchasing the land and gave some details about the proposal. According to Snedecor, they told him that none of those detained would be released in the local community and that if not deported would be taken back to the area where they had been picked up.
ALREADY IN GARY
According to ICE, its detainees scheduled for a removal flight are already transported from various county jails, where the agency contracts for detention space, to its daytime processing facility in Broadview, Ill., in the early morning hours on the day of their scheduled flights. After being processed at Broadview, they are transported to either the Gary airport or O'Hare International Airport for deportation.
ICE operates a weekly charter flight that flies from the Gary airport to the southern border with an average of 50 Mexican nationals on board. The agency also transports nationals from other countries on commercial flights that leave from O'Hare.
According to GEO, the Gary property being considered is zoned for manufacturing. Property to the north of the site contains existing and abandoned railroad corridors and undeveloped wetland and marshes. South of the site is the EJ&E Railroad line and undeveloped/underutilized brownfield industrial sites, said the company. East of the site if the MIDCO II Environmental Clean Up site.
In paperwork submitted to Gary, GEO said the proposed detention center will generate significant revenue to the airport through additional take-offs and landings.
'PRETTY GOOD PLACE'
The proposed site is comprised of parcels at 5932 to 5924 Industrial Highway, owned by G.P. Development LLC and 5934 to 5960 Industrial Highway and 6100 to 6122 Industrial Higway, both owned by Industrial Highway Corp. The president of Industrial Highway Corp. is listed as Richard A. Oliver, who is also president of Refax, Inc., which has a facility next door to the proposed site.
Oliver said he didn't know what was planned at the site when he initially entered into a purchase agreement with the company, but he thinks "it is a pretty good place" for the processing facility. He noted it is in a pretty isolated area with no residents nearby.
"I think being close to Chicago and having an airport right there is a plus for them," he said.
In Dec. 6, 2012, ICE asked for requests for information for planning purposes. That request informally indicated what the detention facility might contain, although it was subject to change.
LOW TO MAX SECURITY
According to that document, the ideal facility, or facilities, would have low, minimum and maximum security beds for adult detainees, including the full range of criminal and non-criminal cases.
The proposed breakdown of the population that could be housed at the facility included 138 low security, 378 medium security, and 192 high security, with another 80 in other categories, including those in administrative segregation.
Other parts of the facility could include outdoor and indoor recreation, a law library, visitor space, a cafeteria and space for religious services. The facility could also include four courtrooms and administrative office space for 18 deportation officers and 16 principal legal advisers.
Ideally, ICE wanted the facility to be located within a 60-minute commute of ICE's Chicago Field Office.
UNKNOWN FUTURE IN HOBART
The future of the Hobart site is unknown. There has been discussion in the past about trying to maintain the land as green space. Nicole Barker, president of the Save the Dunes organization, said if the land were to become available the group would have to convene a committee to determine how such a purchase might fit into its current goals and priorities.
Tom DuBois, a chairperson with the Concerned Citizens of Hobart, said the group is pleased that it appears GEO is not opening up the facility in their community and he wishes they would sell the land.
DuBois is not happy though that the company locating a detention facility anywhere in the area. He said none of his group believes the company's promises regarding employment and contended wages at other facilities are around $10 an hour or less.
In addition, DuBois believes such a facility instead of spurring economic development around the area, would deter business from locating there. He also noted some of the human rights concerns raised at some of the facilities run by GEO and said "its a moral issue as well as an economic one."