Aurora Panel Approves Immigrant Detention Expansion

Aurora planning commissioners unanimously approved the expansion of a privately run immigrant detention facility on Wednesday, but opponents of the plan have vowed to appeal the decision to the City Council.

Numerous critics and supporters attended the city planning meeting to voice their opinions on the proposal, including the founder and CEO of the prison firm seeking to more than triple the size of the immigrant lockup.The GEO Group, a multinational prison contractor based in Florida, wants to increase the size of its 400-bed federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility by 1,100 beds, turning the lockup into one of the largest prisons for immigrants in the country.

Activists with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, a group composed of dozens of civil rights organizations throughout the state, held a rally before the commission hearing to say that additional detention is not the correct way to deal with immigration.

Demonstrators faced an uphill battle with commissioners, who were only examining the actual site plan for the GEO facility rather than the merits of the expansion. Although citizens were welcome to testify before the panel about any concerns, the planning officials were only examining issues like zoning, construction and the impact on surrounding neighborhoods.

Community Outreach City Attorney Dave Lathers noted early in the hearing that commissioners were only interested in “fact finding on the site plan” and that “policy comments are wholly irrelevant.”

Even with such limitations, coalition members brought up a number of planning issues around the new building, ranging from needed space for waiting family members and the environmental impact on the community.

GEO officials maintained that the expansion would provide sufficient space because the new lobby would hold approximately 20 people while city planning staff concluded that a formal environmental impact report was not legally required.

George Zoley, CEO and founder of the corporation and who was reported to have earned approximately $3.8 million in 2007, traveled to Colorado to make an appearance at the meeting in support of the expansion.

According to the company CEO, the 20-year-old Aurora facility gave “birth to the company” as its first institution and GEO has been a good neighbor to the community ever since.

“There’s no public funds involved in this facility,” Zoley assured the commissioners.

But that fact also worries opponents of the plan.

ICE authorities are not behind the expansion and have not determined a need for the additional space in Aurora, and immigrant rights activists fear that it may signify a license for GEO to do whatever it wants with the additional space, including leasing it to the state Department of Corrections.

“As we know right now, ICE has not granted a contract with the GEO group,” said immigrant coalition organizer Miriam Pe

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at