GARY — The Gary Board of Zoning Appeals on Tuesday recommended against granting a zoning variance for land near the Gary/Chicago International Airport for an immigrant detention center, but the project is not yet dead.
Representatives of The GEO Group next plan to argue their case for the facility before the Gary City Council, which will make a final determination on the variance.
Protesters are expected to pack that meeting as they did Tuesday's board meeting.
Prior to Tuesday's meeting a rally took place in which representatives from various religious and civic groups around Gary were represented. As in past meetings, protesters loudly chanted "No GEO" and disparaged the multinational company's record in operating private prisons and detention centers, including its treatment of staff and detainees.
The Rev. Stephen Gibson, pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in East Chicago, brought along a group of children who he said would be among the victims if their parents were separated from them because of their immigration status.
Inside the City Council chambers, one group of protesters unfurled a large banner in the back of the room that said "No Borders, No Cages" and repeatedly chanted "GEO Group, shut it down" while attorney Jim Wieser spoke on behalf of the company's proposal. Police eventually escorted that group out, but the criticism of the company and its proposal continued as a host of speakers appeared before the board.
The speakers against the project included Bishop Donald Hying, of the Catholic Diocese of Gary, former Lake County Sheriff Roy Dominguez and former Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher, who said he stood by current Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson in opposition to GEO's plan to construct what the company calls an immigration processing center, but what opponents call a prison.
The Rev. Cheryl Rivera, executive director of the Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations, once again read from an open letter opposing the project that was signed by numerous other groups, including Black Lives Matter-Gary Northwest Indiana, the Baptist Ministers Conference of Gary & Vicinity, Twin City Ministerial Alliance, Concerned Citizens of Gary and Concerned Citizens of Hobart. The latter group has long protested any siting of a detention center on land GEO owns in that community.
The GEO Group also had sought a zoning variance in Gary last year, but withdrew its request in the wake of vociferous opposition by many of the same people who appeared at the protest rally and meeting Tuesday.
Board of Zoning Appeals member Jamelba Johnson, who joined in the 3-1 vote against the variance, told company representatives that "I don't know how you even had the nerve to ever come back."
The petition for the variance was being made by High Point Properties, LLC., a subsidiary of The GEO Group.
There were also a few people outside of The GEO Group representatives who supported the project, including resident A.J. Wiley-Priest, who held a sign outside City Hall that said "Our Young People Need Jobs."
Company representatives said the facility would create about 100 jobs in the construction of the facility and 200 or more in running the center. They said the center would represent an $80 million investment and they would invest in infrastructure improvements and perform needed environmental cleanup of the site where they plan to locate.
Opponents said the jobs being offered are not the ones they want in the community, contend it would dissuade other more desirable businesses from locating by the airport, and the center that could house nearly 800 is a place that marketed on the misery of poor immigrant families.
"We do not want to see this become a prison community," Rivera said.
Joe Enriquez Henry, the national vice president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said "these prisons have taken our people who have fled Central America, who have fled violence and put them back into harm's way again. We do not need private prisons. We need a pathway to citizenship and comprehensive immigration reform."
Despite Tuesday's rejection by the zoning board and the heated opposition, David J. Venturella, senior vice president of business development for The GEO Group, said the company will continue to pursue the project and believes they can succeed in winning approval for it in Gary.
"I think if the people look at the merits of what we are proposing, yes," said Venturella after the meeting.
Rivera promised to be back in force with the opposition at future meetings and will continue to meet with council members, some of whom she said seemed to be listening to GEO's proposal more than others.