By Louise Scott, Gary Crusader
The Gary Common Council chambers was filled to capacity Tuesday night with protesters who made it clear that they were opposed to the GEO Group, Inc. bringing an immigration detention center to the City of Gary.
Over 15 residents spoke during the public speaking portion of the City Council meeting to have a chance to express to council members that they were against a project such as a detention center being located across from the Gary-Chicago International Airport.
The GEO has proposed to spend about $80 million to build an immigration detention center on 24 acres just north of the Gary-Chicago International Airport. The center would create approximately 250 jobs as well as “hundreds” of construction employment opportunities over an 18- to 24-month period.
The GEO failed on their first attempt to bring the center to Gary after meeting with the City’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), but were met by the Northwest Indiana Interfaith Federation who was there to protest.
Due to a lack of a quorum, the BZA cancelled the meeting and scheduled to meet on another date. Before that date, the GEO withdrew their petition.
Several residents made accusations that it was 6th District Councilwoman LaVetta Sparks-Wade who brought the GEO back for a second hearing. She said that it was not her that brought the GEO Group back to Gary.
“I heard the rumor from five or six people that I was the one that brought them back. I did not bring them back; however, I did contact them because it is my responsibility as a council member to get all of the information possible especially when it involves economic development for the city. In speaking with the residents in the 6th District and receiving information from interested parties, I believe there is more potential to divide this community rather than bringing them together,” stated Sparks-Wade.
She went on to say that she had many residents who called her and texted her saying they wanted it here. “Let me be clear, this fight is not over; I want to see the same people who came from different communities to share in this fight and ensure that the city of Gary rises again.”
Councilman-at-Large Herbert Smith said Ordinance 16-20 indicated that the council was going to borrow money to meet their obligations.
“How do you run a city with no money? People have told me that they want Starbucks or a Walmart or some type of business entity to come here, but those entities look at the wealth of the community. I’m interested in making sure young people have an opportunity of come to Gary, live in Gary, make a living and create a tax base. These people have offered a memorandum of understanding where they offered to repair the infrastructure out there. When it comes back up, I hope that the council pass (es) it.”
Council President Ron Brewer said his stand has always been that if any business comes to Gary, he has the obligation to give them the opportunity to present themselves whether it’s something he feels he wants in the community or don’t want in the community. “I want to make sure that the open-door policy is open for everyone. I just don’t want to take sides and say that this is a position that people don’t want and we shut it down immediately. On third and final, we will cast our votes.”
More than a dozen people spoke out against the project during the public speaking portion of the council meeting.
The first speaker said the citizens of Gary want to see economic development stating, “I believe that the citizens of Gary need economic development.”
JoAnn Henry, national vice-president of the League of the United Latin American Citizens also spoke. She said they are strongly opposed to having this type of prison in Gary.
She said, “We are opposed to any facility that would further divide families and destroy any sense of community. GEO has a horrendous track record of human rights violations and abuses. It is imperative that we not allow GEO to build a prison that would hold immigrants hostage, taking rights away and turning families apart. Lives will be destroyed in the community. We have fought these prisons elsewhere along the boards of Mexico, Arizona, California and Illinois.”
Rev. Cheryl Rivera with the Northwest Indiana Interfaith Federation also spoke. She said they are opposed to the GEO for faith reasons and it does not fit with their moral compos.
“The GEO is taking us in the wrong direction. We understand that Gary has 40% unemployment, and we have fought for jobs in Gary. We have worked in this community. We are invested in Gary. We believe in Gary, and we believe GEO is directly opposed to the development of the Gary Airport where we have spent $260 million of public money. We urge you to vote ‘no’ for GEO.”
Ron Gibson, a retired electrician, a United States Marine Corp veteran and currently a Gary business owner said his business will not do prisons and they will not do casinos.
Dena Holland-Neal said the citizens of Gary did not upgrade the airport for a prison.
“It will not provide any long-term stability for the city of Gary. People will look at it and get a negative image. I know there is money that GEO is spending in our community, and the Baptist ministers can attest to that. They came in and offered money to them. They do that because they think that we are dehydrated for jobs. We may be thirsty, but we are not dehydrated,” Holland-Neal said.
Carolyn McCrady said when we listen to GEO; we are listening to a historic enemy of this community because they speak with a fork tongue. “How can they call themselves friends to this community? All of this legislation has one purpose: to control the community at hire [sic] and make money at the expense of the community. They should be refused entrance into our city for once and for all.”
Rev. Asher Harris, president of the Baptist Ministers’ Conference and pastor of Great Band Missionary Baptist Church said he wants the council not to allow GEO into the city.