Protesters target Aurora GEO/ICE prison warden at his southeast Aurora home


AURORA | About 100 protesters demanding the end to incarceration of undocumented immigrants in Aurora took to the streets in the neighborhood of the top official in charge of Aurora’s privately run ICE detention center Thursday evening.

A march organized by two immigrant-rights activist groups, Denver Communists and Abolish ICE Denver, began about 6:30 p.m. at a park in southeast Aurora. The group planned to make a circuit on streets in the neighborhood, targeting Aurora GEO/ICE warden Johnny Choate.

Maybe neighbors in the community said Choate wasn’t at home, and were pretty much indifferent about the protest, adding that they thought it hurt the protestors’ cause. Some privately voiced their support.

Protesters continued to circle Choates’ home, were Aurora police armed with rifles stood in driveway in a clearly defensive stance.

“Keep it peaceful, but that’s not how you bring me to your side  — if you piss me off,” said Tollgate neighborhood resident Dave Lund. “(Choate is) not even home right now. They’re just going to be yelling at an empty house.”

The protesters ultimately gathered in front of a home protected by armed police. The normally quiet suburban street and sidewalk was flooded with the more than 100 protesters holding flags and signs. Police vehicles and police in riot gear repeatedly steered the protesters down the block, who chanted “Abolish ICE” and made a great deal of noise banging on pots and pans and playing instruments such as trumpets.

Some neighbors jeered at them, and many drank beers on their lawns watching the action.

Protesters also yelled, “No ICE. No KKK. No fascist USA.”

Police trailed the protesters with squad car and police motorcycle lights flashing. One resident blared a country music song about freedom from his house as protesters passed by.

Protesters said the event was an important way to get their message across that normal, civil discourse has taken place and made no difference.

There’s none of that going on inside of Choate’s camp, said protester Carlos Valdez, a teacher for Aurora Public Schools.  There’s no democracy or discourse for the imprisoned immigrants, he said. “We want Choate to know what that feels like — to not have that civil discourse. We want him to hear us loud and clear.”

After the marching and armed police moved on, Choate’s neighbors regrouped. Resident Kayla Iaquinta, 17, said she is friends with Choate’s daughters and is thankful that they are safe.

“They did nothing wrong, and this is making it worse for the community,” she said of the protest.

The protest has prompted stern condemnation from Colorado Republicans and relative silence from regional Democrats.

Aurora Congressman Jason Crow, a vocal critic of the GEO-ICE facility was the exception to that.

“We need more oversight of ICE facilities, not the protest of individuals at their private home. I firmly disagree with this approach,” Crow told the Sentinel as the event took place. “We must keep the focus on fighting for accountability and the dignity of all people.”

The latest protest comes on the heels of ICE and GEO officials trying to counter growing sentiment against the agency and the Aurora facility.

READ — EDITORIAL: Protesting the home of an Aurora GEO ICE prison official is terrorism — don’t go there

ICE officials held a press conference last weekend in a effort to diffuse what they say are “myths” about ICE and GEO facilities.

“We have been doing the same thing for years. It’s the rhetoric lately and these things that are being said about the men and women of ICE — that there is a humanitarian crisis that we’re running concentration camps — that is the wrong thing to say. The men and women of ICE put on a badge every day and take an oath to defend this country and protect this country.”

Protests at the Aurora facility have become increasingly larger and boisterous. A protest in July resulted in Aurora police standing by as scofflaws rushed a prison property front to deface flags.

Asked about the protest planned for Choate’s neighborhood Thursday, Denver ICE Field Director John Fabbricatore said “It is wrong to go to a man’s home and protest at his home for a job he is doing, that he is being contracted to do. These groups that are going out there and scaring his wife and children are wrong.” 

Choate is the warden of the detention center in Aurora that is owned and operated by GEO Group Inc. and contracted by the federal government. 

Last August, Choate took to the Hill newspaper to write about what he called “misleading information and politically-driven insinuations about the services The GEO Group (GEO) provides to the federal government.”

“For more than three decades, we have served as a partner to the public sector, fulfilling contracts with very clear and detailed mandates, requirements and comprehensive oversight. It is not my job to cast judgment or opinion on those entrusted to our care,” he wrote. “Rather, it is my job to protect those entering the facility and ensure they are provided high-quality, culturally responsive services in safe, secure, and humane environments, and are treated with compassion, dignity and respect.”

The Aurora facility and others across the country were criticized by federal officials, members of Congress and local civil rights activists.

“Immigration detention facilities, like the one operated by GEO Group in Aurora, are all too often cloaked in secrecy, offering little to no transparency into the way detainees are treated within their walls,” ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein said earlier this year.

Since becoming the acting field director, Fabbricatore said he’s focused on increasing transparency of the agency and the detention center in north Aurora.

“There’s nothing for us to hide,” Fabbricatore said. “We’re following the law. It’s important for us to be transparent because we are housing 1,300 human beings in that facility. It is important that they are treated the right way. We believe we are doing that under the policies that we are following. If there are things that need to be changed, we’re willing to look at that, and we are willing to work with different organizations every day.”

Since July, Aurora Congressman Jason Crow’s office has been conducting a weekly “oversight visit.” 

Crow has been calling for more transparency since he was denied a visit in February after showing up the the GEO facility in Aurora unannounced. ICE officials later said Crow was not admitted into the facility because he alerted the media.