AURORA | Nearly an hour and a half into a protest against conditions in immigration facilities across the country, a single Mexican flag was raised above the Aurora detention center operated by GEO Group Inc.
When hundreds of marchers, organized by a group called Lights for Liberty, arrived at 3130 Oakland St. in north Aurora, a sign and chains blocked off the entrance to the facility, warning that behind the barrier was not public property.
Lights for Liberty had scheduled vigils and marches across the country ahead of a nationwide immigration enforcement operation announced yesterday by the Trump Administration.
The operation, which is sparking outrage and concern among immigrant advocates, would target people with final orders of removal, including families whose immigration cases had been fast-tracked by judges in 10 major cities, including Denver. It’s not so far clear whether ICE will be targeting just the city of Denver or the entire metro area, including Aurora.
Eventually, some of protestors made their way beyond the barricade. Then, they removed the flags — a GEO Group banner, a U.S. flag and a Colorado flag — and put up their own, a Mexican flag, an upside down banner that was a “thin blue line” emblem, which resembles an American flag, and another banner also disparaging police officials.
Organizers warned the protesters that by moving past the barricades they were putting more undocumented people who might be in the crowd at risk, especially if police were called to stop the march. Eventually, organizers told the crowd to disperse and that police were ready to force protestors off of the street and sidewalks, which were blocked off from traffic by the police.
Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz confirmed to the Sentinel he had not ordered officers to break up the crowd, noting that the event seemed pretty peaceful. In recent weeks Metz has reaffirmed the department’s stance on immigration matters: “Aurora Police Officers DO NOT have the authority to detain a person based on their immigration status. They also DO NOT have the authority to investigate or enforce federal immigration laws. They do not and will not ask a person about their immigration status. It is not our practice to report to other agencies who we speak with or what their immigration status is for being in this country or in our city,” he wrote on a police department blog post last month.
Following the march, a spokesman for GEO Group told the Sentinel in a statement that the company is “concerned about the unprecedented humanitarian crisis at our Southern border.”
“We acknowledge the challenge, but we are appalled by this historically and factually inaccurate portrayal of our facilities. Contrary to the images of other facilities on the news, our facilities have never been overcrowded, nor have they ever housed unaccompanied minors,” the statement said. “The GEO Group’s facilities, including the processing center in Aurora, offer modern amenities with air conditioning, a bed for every individual, recreational activities, 24/7 medical care and access to legal services on the premises as we carry out our mission to provide the safest, most humane care possible.”
Aurora’s immigration detention center has never held children. Many of the signs and protestors at the march called out the separation policy that was once in place at the border. ICE officials have said it’s likely there have been parents in the facility who were separated from children.
Speakers at the event included Danielle Jefferis, a civil rights fellow at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. She told attendees to remember three things: that the detention centers are concentration camps, detention is still breaking up families and that detaining immigrants is a profitable business.
Aurora City Council members Allison Hiltz, Crystal Murillo and Nicole Johnston, who said they were not speaking on behalf of the city, told the crowd they stood with the protestors and the families.
Hiltz, who has been a vocal critic of GEO Group and the Aurora facility, also noted the profitability of the detention center and federal reports that have revealed wrongdoings in the facility, including a federal investigation that found “open packaged food (that) was not properly relabeled and dated for future consumption,” lack of outdoor recreational space, male and female detainees sharing recreational space, detainees that were not allowed in-person visits and “serious issues with the administrative and disciplinary segregation of detainees.”
Protestors called for shutting down of the facility. sentiment
Aurora Congressman Jason Crow says ICE should not contract with private prison companies, such as GEO Group.
“Private, for-profit detention centers have become a stain on our American values. Since taking office, I have fought for accountability and called on this administration to respect the dignity of all people,” he said in a statement this week. “We have an immigration detention system that is driven by corporate greed. This system has allowed corporations like GEO Group to cut corners on necessary medical care and safety to benefit their bottom line.”
Crow was not at the march, but a statement was read on his behalf.
“This weekend, thousands of families in our community live in fear as the administration threatens raids. Separating children from their parents is cruel, inhuman, and does nothing to make our country safer or fix our broken immigration system. History will judge this President’s lack of decency harshly, and we must never stop speaking out against it,” his statement said.
“As we deal with a humanitarian crisis at the border, across the country we have witnessed disturbing conditions at detention facilities, including right here in Aurora. All people, regardless of their status, deserve to be treated with dignity, decency, and respect. Those are our American values, they are our community values, and we must protect them. You can count on me to continue the fight both in Colorado and in Washington.”
Crow, an Army veteran, later condemned the protestors who defaced the flag in a statement provided to the Sentinel.
“I condemn the desecration of the American flag. I fought to defend our flag and the values it represents. To deny the dignity and decency of people in detention is an affront to those values,” he said. “I support the peaceful protesters who were there to raise awareness of conditions at immigration detention centers and thank the Aurora police for their professionalism at the event.”
Congressional staff from Crow’s office are slated to visit the GEO Group facility on Monday, the start of weekly visits he recently announced.
When asked Friday whether ICE was cooperating with plans to visit weekly, an ICE spokeswoman told the Sentinel the agency had no comment. But Crow’s office says the congressman has been in touch and communicated the visits to Denver-area ICE officials.
— The Associated Press contributed to this story