Early Wednesday morning, Rep. Jason Crow showed up unannounced at the immigration detention facility in Aurora. He wanted to know about the health conditions of detainees. So he asked for a tour, but officials there turned him away.
"We were told about the conditions at the facility being very substandard, you know, both health and food, and just the cleanliness of the facility," said Crow, a Democrat who represents the 6th District east of Denver.
Crow added that he'd heard "when there's announced visits they clean things up and put out the window dressing."
For months, immigration attorneys and advocates have raised concerns about health and other conditions at the facility.
Last June, the American Immigration Council and the American Immigration Lawyers Association filed an administrative complaint with several federal agencies, including ICE, demanding an investigation into what they decried as "woefully inadequate medical and mental health care" at the facility run by The GEO Group, a private company. The complaint cited current and former detainees' complaints about difficulty accessing care and legal resources.
On Wednesday, Crow again raised such concerns, saying the history of the site and complaints from his constituents warrant a federal investigation.
"I'm performing my accountability duties as a member of Congress to get more information and figure out what's going on," Crow said.
He also sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security underscoring issues he sees as connected to the recent expansion of the facility.
"GEO Group remodeled the facility's annex, allowing for 432 more detainee beds and increasing overall capacity to 1,532, an increase of nearly 40 percent," Crow wrote. "As I am sure you are aware, a detention center of this size requires the support of local health and safety agencies. The expansion of the facility was done without coordination with local agencies and could pose substantial risk to both detainees and first responders."
After speaking with community groups last week and hearing serious concerns about the conditions at the ICE facility in #Aurora, I sent a letter to DHS this morning demanding answers. You can read my letter here. pic.twitter.com/V8HskCNr41
— Rep. Jason Crow (@RepJasonCrow) February 20, 2019
He added that he's heard of disease outbreaks at the facility, including chicken pox, and wanted answers about any outbreaks and how they were handled. He also raised concerns that the medical staff is stretched too thin and that detainees are not getting timely or adequate care.
Laura Lunn, the managing attorney of the detention program for the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, said the facility's population has grown. One metric to measure that growth: her organization needs more volunteer attorneys.
"We generally do presentations every afternoon at the detention facility to screen people's cases, to try to match them with pro bono representation," Lunn said. "Ordinarily we see about 100 people a week. We saw about 100 people on Friday last week. We have about 700 people on our list to see."
Lunn added that many of the detainees are asylum seekers who have been flown to the Aurora facility from elsewhere, especially those who crossed the border, entering the United States in California and Texas.
Updated at 3:24 p.m.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement responded to KUNC’s request for comment after the original story posted.
ICE said the agency "routinely supports tours of its detention facilities" by the public. "In order to ensure the safety, security and privacy of detainees, these tours are arranged in advance and with the approval of the field office director."
ICE said the recently remodeled 432-bed annex at the Aurora facility opened in January: "Detainees in the annex receive hot meals and medical care including daily medications. The open environment allows for detainees to socialize. In addition, all pods have regularly serviced phones for detainees to contact family members and support groups. Mobile phones are also available for private calls to legal teams. ICE takes very seriously its responsibility to care for detainees."
Regarding disease at the facility, ICE issued this statement: "With the recent influx of migrants coming from the southern border, ICE has confirmed one new case of parotitis, mumps, at our Denver Contract Detention Facility (Aurora facility). Medical personnel are credited with reducing the further infection of detainees by their quick reaction to quarantine everyone who may have been inadvertently exposed to stop the spread of the disease.
"Each detainee receives a medical examination upon arrival at the facility to check for potential signs of illness, however ICE has no way of knowing what viruses a person may have been exposed to prior to entering the facility. Mumps is highly contagious, easily contracted by nearby people and difficult to detect until symptoms appear. ICE and the medical professionals employed by GEO took the necessary steps to quickly isolate the exposed detainees, provide proper medical care and prevent further spread of the disease."