AURORA | Amid calls for more transparency and oversight at the immigration detention center in Aurora, five city candidates running for mayor were invited to the facility.
All five mayoral hopefuls received an invitation for the tour, according to candidates and a spokeswoman from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, but only three attended: Omar Montgomery, Ryan Frazier and Mike Coffman.
“For the tour, we wanted to make sure all candidates for the important office of Mayor of Aurora had an opportunity to see the facility for themselves. This is the first in a proposed series of stakeholder tours so members of the community who are not press or (congressional) representatives can see the facility,” ICE spokeswoman Alethea Smock told the Sentinel in an email after being asked why the agency reached out specifically to the mayoral candidates.
“Our goal is to balance the needs of the organization to be able to perform their mission with the need for transparency and access for stakeholders,” she said.
Several members of city council confirmed that the group has not received an invitation from ICE or GEO Group Inc., which owns and operates the facility, for a tour. Council members Allison Hiltz, Dave Gruber and Françoise Bergan have attended a tour after asking for one.
Some council members, such as Hiltz, and Congressman Jason Crow have been calling on ICE and GEO Group to allow more oversight of the facility after Crow was denied entry in February when he arrived at the detention center for an “oversight inspection” without any prior notification.
Since then, Crow has implemented a weekly oversight tour at the facility, making the reports public on his Congressional webpage.
“When we tried to visit the ICE detention center in Aurora unannounced, it was because we were afraid that ICE would put on the window dressing for Congress and, as we see today, it turns out those fears were not unfounded,” Crow said during a news conference in June after an Office of Inspector General report detailed some conditions ICE identified as being inadequate inside the facility.
Hiltz, who arrived with Crow for the unannounced tour in February, has contended that ICE and GEO Group are “rolling out the red carpet” on tours, and don’t fully share the conditions in which detainees are living with.
She said she hopes others are invited into the facility.
“I welcome any efforts to provide access to the facility, although we know that tours are limited to only the areas GEO Group wants us to see. That said, I hope this invitation extends beyond mayoral candidates,” Hiltz said in a statement to the Sentinel. “If not, it demonstrates that the facility’s leadership is more interested in playing politics and photo ops in an election year than it is in addressing concerns about their conditions and operations.”
Frazier said after the one-hour-and-fifteen-minute tour he believes conditions to be sufficient for staff and detainees.
“I would start off by saying it’s a detention center,” Frazier said. “That’s not sugar coated. I don’t think you can sugar coat that…I don’t want to make it sound like some posh environment.”
Frazier said the trio of candidates were not allowed to speak to any detainees, but they did see various areas inside the facility, including the pods where detainees are housed, the medical ward and intake area.
“I left it thinking conditions were good,” highlighting that he was keenly interested in detainees’ access to resources, such as communication with their families. “Based on what was reported to me, it sounds like they are more than sufficient to all of that.
Frazier and Montgomery stopped short of saying whether the invitation was politically motivated, being that one of the five candidates will speak for the city after the November election.
“I don’t know, I would believe because as candidates for mayor, we are the most visible and most vocal and I believe as far as the public is concerned, the leaders of the city, ICE and GEO want to invite us in to have a first hand look at their operation and to answer questions as we will be the ones primarily being asked a lot of questions both voters and future constituents about the conditions in the facility,” Frazier said.
Montgomery said he asked for a tour prior to the invitation being sent to each of the mayoral candidates.
“I can’t say if it was politics, if it was them trying to do more outreach. What I can say is that I’m glad I did have the opportunity. I think our city council should have the opportunity. I think our state and federal representatives should have the opportunities,” he said, endorsing that advocacy groups should also be able to tour the facility.
The Coffman campaign did not return an interview request but did provide a statement following the tour.
“No doubt, the conditions at the detention center are challenging because the number of detainees at the Aurora ICE facility has dramatically increased, due to the surge of apprehensions at our southern border,” Coffman said in his statement. ” I believe the operators of the facility have made a good-faith effort to improve the care of detainees since last year’s ICE Inspector General investigation.”