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GEO opponents look to future
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GEO opponents look to future

Anti-GEO protest

Emmett Mosley, of Gary, an opponent of a proposed immigrant detention center, is removed Wednesday from the Gary City Council chambers by police during a council meeting.

GARY — In the aftermath of a City Council vote Wednesday that kept an immigration detention center from locating in the city, questions remained about what else the city can do to bolster its economy.

The Rev. Charles Strietelmeier, president of Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations, one of several groups opposing the detention center, was well aware such questions were being asked following the groups’ successful effort to stop the proposal.

“If not this, then what?” Strietelmeier said. “I think the Federation has a passion for answering that question and I think many of our partners feel the same way.”

Gary’s City Council in a long, sometimes rancorous meeting that saw two protesters removed by police, voted against requests for variances on two pieces of property for the proposed center that would detain people suspected of being in violation of immigration law.

The GEO Group was hoping to build the center, which it contends would have provided more than 200 jobs, on land across from Gary/Chicago International Airport.

Armando Saleh, a spokesman for The Geo Group, Thursday said the company is not pursing any other sites in the area for the detention center.

While the council voted unanimously against the variances, some members still talked of the need for jobs in the economically depressed community.

“I supported GEO because I looked at the economic condition of our city,” said Councilman Herb Smith, D-at large. He announced Wednesday he was going to vote against the variance requests, however, because it is “the will of the people.”

Protesters were against the facility on moral grounds and also contended the facility could deter other businesses from locating in the area around the airport.

Council President Ron Brewer, D-at large, however, pointed to communities such as Crown Point and Michigan City that have successful developments and high-priced homes despite having correctional facilities.

Opponents said the facilities in those communities are government facilities rather than for-profit facilities like the center planned for Gary. They also contended the jobs at the for-profit facilities have a high turnover rate and were concerned that most of the employees might come from outside the area. In addition, they characterized the use of inmates to perform some work at the facility as “slave labor.”

Strietelmeier, pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Hobart, noted his group and others would rather try to bring good jobs to the area rather than fighting to “keep bad jobs out.”

He said that is just what the coalition was working on prior to redirecting their energies to fight the immigrant detention proposal. The Northwest Indiana Federation has been involved for a number of months working with other groups on job strategies and creating positive economic activity, Strietelmeier said.

GEO and other operators of for-profit prison and detention centers have been strongly criticized by various groups around the country for how they run their facilities, although company representatives said their operations are regularly inspected by the government and other agencies.

They also said jobs at the facility would not be minimum wage jobs and that the company would work to prepare local residents for jobs there.

Strietelmeier on Thursday said opponents are “pretty sure that GEO is going to be back.”

He said he didn’t know where the company might try to locate its facility next, but “every time they try to come into the area, we’ll have a coalition to fight them.”

The GEO Group still has property in Hobart, although there also is strong opposition in that community for any type of detention center.

Saleh said Thursday that while GEO has no plans to sell the Hobart property at the moment, the company does not plan to build an immigration detention center there or elsewhere in Northwest Indiana.

The proposed Gary facility was to be built in response to a request for proposals that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is expected to issue for a detention center within 60 miles of its Chicago field office. Saleh said the company is no longer going to pursue that request.

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