Congressman Jason Crow addresses the media May 20 outside of the GEO facility. Photo by Kara Mason/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | After several calls for more transparency at the private Aurora Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency detention center, Congressman Jason Crow is introducing a bill that would allow members of Congress quick access to immigration detention centers.

The bill, called the Public Oversight of Detention Centers Act or POD Act, would require that access be granted in 48 hours of the request.

At a news conference outside of the Aurora detention center Monday, Crow said he’s introducing the bill because of several events that have taken place over the last several months, including detainee deaths and disease outbreaks in several ICE detention centers cross the country. Earlier this year, the Aurora detention center, owned and operated by GEO Group Inc., said several of its detainees were in quarantine because they may have been exposed to cars of mumps or chickenpox.

“I believe that government works best when the public has access to information about what it’s doing with taxpayer money,” Crow said. “This is a common sense bill. It’s about transparency, it’s about community and making sure we know what government is doing.” 

Nicole Melaku, Executive Director of Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, praised the bill saying that her organization has talked to families who say they know detainees who have experienced trouble accessing health care in the facility. 

Similar stories and reports of quarantined detainees are what got Crow involved in conditions in the detention center.

Crow was denied entry into the facility in February when he showed up unannounced and asked if he could perform an “inspection.” He was turned away by GEO staff. After two more attempts at scheduling a tour, Crow and staff were finally allowed into the facility. Crow said he was was told he could not attend a tour that was granted to members of the press earlier this year. 

“On the morning of February 20, Representative Crow was denied a tour of the Aurora(Colorado) Contract Detention Facility because he arrived at the facility with a media entourage that he invited, and he expected that they would be allowed to tour the facility with him,” ICE Denver field director John Fabbricatore said in a statement. “We would have immediately accommodated the congressman’s tour request had he arrived without media reps in tow, as we did when we hosted a tour of the facility for him on April 15, 2019. My ICE Denver staff have been in daily communication with Representative Crow’s local staff for months; his statements saying that we would not facilitate him are disingenuous. Instead, he continues to grandstand in front of the media outlets that he invited.”

Crow told reporters he’s currently in the process of seeking a Republican co-sponsor for the bill. There are three Democrats co-sponsoring the legislation. Crow said there are ICE detention centers in both Democratic and Republican Congress districts, making the issue one that should transcend politics. 

Earlier this year Crow also made an appropriations request for 2020 that would allow members of Congress “inspections” of ICE detention centers. While the congressman is exploring both avenues simultaneously, he said the appropriation request would only allow access for one year, whereas the bill wouldn’t have an end date if it became law.

An ICE spokeswoman was present at Crow’s news conference and told the Sentinel ICE had not been notified about the legislation.

Transparency has been a concern for some local lawmakers too. However Aurora City Council member Allison Hiltz said there’s been progress.

“We have made great strides since we gained access to the facility — which was after 24 days,” she said. “We have vaccines that are available now for people inside for staff and detainees. We also have Tri County Health getting involved to make sure they have a little bit more input and involvement on the conditions inside. We are moving forward to make sure there is coordination between the police and fire departments so that they known what’s happening inside the facility if they are to respond here. That said, that was an excruciatingly long, drawn-out road to get to that point.” 

Hiltz previously voiced unease that police and fire officials didn’t know the facility had taken on an “annex,” which allowed the detention center to house up to 432 additional detainees. After extending that temporary contract for a year, ICE officials said they’d be adding more medical personal for the nearly 1,500 detainees housed in Aurora.