Outside a 300,000-squarefoot building in a run-down Aurora neighborhood on Aug. 5, a lively, ethnically diverse crowd of some 80 people marched, sang and chanted.
They carried signs about keeping families together and resisting deportation. About 20 of them were little kids, many wearing big butterfly wings. They stopped at a sign euphemistically saying “GEO Aurora ICE Processing Center.” It is a prison run for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by GEO Group, Inc., which is a for-profit private correctional and detention management firm based in Boca Raton, Fla., that has faced increasing charges of negligence and civil rights violations.
On the first Monday of every month, a vigil and rally for immigrant rights is held there and organized by American Friends Service Committee (Quakers), the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado and the Council of Churches.
A detainee facing deportation to Mexico, Jeanette Vizguerra, spoke from the prison via cell phone at this month’s bilingual rally. She has lived in Colorado for more than 15 years without documents. In 2009, she was pulled over by local police and arrested for driving with expired license plate tags. Vizguerra has three small children who are U.S. citizens, started a moving and cleaning business with her husband, and has been a community activist (Service Employees International Union labor organizer and volunteer with her children’s schools and the Aurora Neighborhood Watch Program). A few days after the rally, ICE released her — after an avalanche of petitions, phone calls, letters, rallies and a hunger strike. But this is just a stay of deportation until January.
State Sen. Morgan Carroll (D-Aurora) supports closing the prison and others like it around the country, which she said lay “beyond the reach of accountability, transparency — every part of due process that we normally assume is present when you detain someone — like a trial, legal representation, access rights, you know, a finite sentence. Those things just aren’t present here.”
Carroll said the Aurora facility runs a “complete cattle call” for the detainees, in which people are herded into group cells. She said they are essentially “serving [indeterminate] sentences in rooms with 40 to 50 other people.”
After touring the facility, Rep. Jared Polis wrote a piece for Huffington Post advocating the reform of U.S. immigration detention facilities, “which hold tens of thousands of immigrants who were mostly picked up for trivial offenses like speeding or loitering and are now in detention at taxpayer expense for months or even years.” He said “stories of abuse, malnutrition and lack of basic health care are altogether too common in detention facilities.”
He said, “Prisons should be for criminals, not honest, productive people caught up in the byzantine morass of our broken immigration system.”
There is a big push for immigration reform after the U.S. Senate passed S.744 — the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 — which provides a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers. Most of the labor movement, immigrant rights groups and Latino advocacy community are critical supporters with apprehensions.
Laurel Herndon is one of them. She is a long-time Boulder immigration attorney and the executive director of the nonprofit Immigrant Legal Center of Boulder County.
“I am not sure about the bill,” she said, “but a lot of people would qualify and benefit from it.”
She said the bill furnishes a formidable 13-year path to citizenship. There are high fees. There is a requirement you cannot go more than 60 days without employment at any time. She said “this will increase the level of exploitation. The employee knows he or she is dependent on the employer to stay continuously employed.”
Conservative Republicans amended the bill to add a massive $46.3 billion expansion of border enforcement.
Herndon said, “The bill instructs the government to purchase specific weapons from specific companies. This is a lot of pork.” This further militarization of the border is a bonanza to military contractors and the private prison industry.
This is a lousy, repressive bill and likely to get worse.
But, as AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka says, “it allows people who are American in every way except on paper to come out of the shadows.”
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.