Immigration and Customs Enforcement invited journalists to visit their detention center in Aurora Friday. The facility, run by private contractor GEO Group, has been at the center of a string of recent stories in the area, from holding parents that were separated from their children at the border to quarantines for outbreaks of mumps and chickenpox, to local and national politicians calling for more oversight at the facility.
Here’s a debrief about the facility and what’s going on there.
A Florida-based company called GEO Group has been running the detention center since the 1980s.
The original Aurora facility was built to house 150 people. It has since expanded quite a lot. In 2018, an additional annex was added with 423 beds. ICE officials say last year, around 500 detainees were held at the facility, but that the number of detainees today is 1,232, including 110 people who were admitted Thursday. The total capacity at the site for ICE detainees is 1,408. There are an additional 100 beds for the U.S. Marshall.
A report by the Office of the Inspector General released in June found several issues that according to the report infringe on the rights of detainees, including access to outdoor recreation and “contact visitations” with families.
Who is held there
Officials are quick to point out that the facility hasn’t housed children. It has, however, housed parents separated from their children at the border.
“There are parents that are separated from their children every day in the United States who are in custody,” said John Fabbricatore, acting field office director with ICE. He said the facility does not keep track of how many detainees are separated from their children. They also do not keep track of who has legal representation.
ICE officials state that in previous years, about 85% of detainees had criminal convictions or pending charges, which can include misdemeanors and non-violent offenses, like a DUI. But, they say, that percent has shifted down in the past year as more people are brought in from the border.
Like many who arrive at the southern border, the population at the Aurora facility is primarily from Latin America, specifically Mexico and Central America. Another 40% are from countries like China and India.
The detainee population is always changing, but during a visit in late July, staff with Congressman Jason Crow reported that about a quarter of detainees are citizens of Mexico, followed by India, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and 55 other countries. The scope of languages spoken by detainees is vast, which is why ICE officials said they rely on bilingual staff as well as a telephone interpretation service. On our tour, we found that certain resources, like the law library, were limited to Spanish and English speakers.
One of the concerns outlined in the OIG report is that detainees aren’t allowed physical contact with their relatives. A Denver woman who did not want to share her name was waiting this morning with her 1-year-old and 4-year-old to visit her husband, who she said has been there since March. She said she visits him three times a week, but that they’re separated by glass during those visits and have to speak to each other using a phone.
“That is something that we are working on at this time. We do think it's important that people have contact visits, but it's very intensive,” said John Fabbricatore. He said contact visits can allow for drugs and other contraband to enter the facility, and that they need to hire additional staff in order to make it possible. Currently, Fabbricatore added, they do allow some contact visits on a case-by-case basis.
“We had someone whose child was killed in a car accident,” he said. “We do look at things case by case to make sure that if there are special needs or special circumstances, that we can make sure they have contact visits. But we would like that to continue all the time for all the detainees.”
Reports cited by the Inspector General show that green space can help reduce stress, depression and violent conflicts among detainees. Those held at the Aurora facility told federal investigators that they wanted time outside for fresh air, sunshine and exercise.
Detainees have access to “outdoor” recreation, but that doesn’t actually take place outdoors. Instead, it takes place in rooms just big enough to fit a basketball court, with high cinder block walls. They don’t differ from other rooms except for chain link fencing in place of a ceiling.
Speaking to the possibility of recreation outside those walls, Fabbricatore said, “We are looking at possibly adding something else. There's nothing on the table. There's nothing that we're taking off. We're just looking at what we can provide.”
According to the Tri-County Health Department, there were 18 cases of mumps at the facility in 2019. Fifteen were part of an outbreak that ended in April, and another three cases developed later in newly arrived detainees. The facility has seen a total of 13 cases of chickenpox this year. Nine of them were part of an outbreak that ended in May. There is now an ongoing outbreak of chickenpox that has so far sickened four people.
The facility works with six remote psychologists, whom detainees speak with via Skype and, if necessary, a translator.
Immigrant advocacy groups have pointed out that there is only one full-time doctor employed at the facility serving more than 1,000 people. The medical team is currently lacking a number of staff; there are vacancies for four licensed practical nurses, a psychologist, a physician’s assistant and the assistant health services administrator.
Elizabeth Jordan, Director of the Immigration Detention Accountability Project at the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, says she’s heard of numerous detainees who were billed for emergency room care they received while detained in Aurora, including one man who was visited by collections while still in ICE custody and who wasn’t able to pay the medical bills on his $1-a-day salary from working at the facility. (Fabbricatore insists that ICE covers all emergency medical care bills).
Jordan says she and her colleagues have a number of concerns.
“One is the fact that this is effectively a prison,” she said. “The average length of stay they’re telling people is somewhere in the range of 2 to 3 months, which is just not true in our experience ... Detention is what happens to you shoot a spitwad at school. What’s happening to these people is incarceration.”
Jordan’s organization is calling for sanctions on ICE for failing to respond to information requests about conditions inside facilities including the one in Aurora, and for difficulties accessing documentation about the case of a man named Kamyar Samimi.
The case of Kamyar Samimi
Kamyar Samimi came to the U.S. as a student from Iran in 1976. A legal permanent resident, Samimi was convicted of possession of cocaine in 2005 and ordered for removal 12 years later. After 15 days in the Aurora detention facility, Samimi died from cardiac arrest, according to a statement by ICE. But after filing a federal lawsuit, the ACLU learned that Samimi suffered from opioid addiction that went untreated during his detention. According to reports by the organization, the man’s pleas for medical attention were ignored, until he began vomiting blood and collapsed. He died shortly thereafter.
Fabbricatore said he couldn’t comment on lessons learned from that case due to the ongoing litigation.
Starting last month, Rep. Jason Crow or his staff have begun visiting the facility every Monday, writing up weekly reports. He’s called for more oversight and accountability by ICE and has introduced a bill that would allow any member of Congress the ability to visit a detention facility, within 48 hours of a request.
In addition, a few members of Aurora’s City Council signed a letter in June condemning “the (Trump) administration’s targeting of families, and the inhumane conditions within the GEO Group facility right here in Aurora.”
“We know that people don't have access to medical care. We know that quarantines results in not being able to go through their court process. We have heard of concerns of retaliation,” said Councilmember Allison Hiltz. “We know that the food is inadequate. We know that this is the only facility the Inspector General came to unannounced and had an issue where people weren't allowed to hug their children. So, I personally have a lot of concerns.”
Additionally, she says, outbreaks of infectious disease haven’t been properly reported to the state or local health department. Hiltz is working on a new requirement that GEO Group report any communicable diseases to the city within 48 hours.
“In most cities, the federal government contracts with the local government, who then subcontracts out to GEO Group or CoreCivic or whoever that corporation is, whereas in Aurora it's registered as a licensed business,” said Hiltz. “So on the one hand that makes it difficult in terms of having any of the additional mechanisms and oversight from the federal level. But it also means that we regulate it like we would any other business … Because it is a business, and this business has put public health and safety — and the health and safety of our first responders — at risk, that's where the city has the ability to step in and provide some oversight mechanisms.”
“There's a lot we can do,” she said. “It's a matter of what will we do.”
A contract between ICE and GEO earlier this year opened an additional 432 beds for immigrant detention until April 2020. That bumped up the total value of the contract from about $305 million to about $319 million. The original contract from 2011 is set to expire in September 2021.
Fabbricatore said low morale “is a problem right now” among ICE and GEO employees at the Aurora detention center.
“We don't like being called Nazis,” he said. “I take it very seriously when people say that we are doing things wrong, that we are running concentration camps. We are not doing that. We provide professional services to everyone that we come in contact with. We make sure that everyone that is here is taken care of.”
And, he added, he’s not against immigration.
“I want people to become United States citizens. I want people to come here to the United States of every color, of every creed. It does not matter who you are. The only thing that we're asking is that you come here legally and you follow the law,” said Fabbricatore. “If we want to see changes and we want things done, Congress needs to change the law. The immigration agents in this community are just following the law.”