U.S. Rep. Jason Crow was turned away Wednesday when he showed up at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Aurora and asked to go inside.
The newly elected Democrat from Aurora and Aurora City Councilwoman Allison Hiltz went to the facility unannounced. The facility is operated for ICE by a private contractor, GEO Group.
Crow — whose district includes the detention center — had written a letter Wednesday to Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of ICE's parent agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, raising "serious concerns and questions regarding the recent expansion of the facility."
He said GEO had remodeled an annex to the facility, "allowing for 432 more detainee beds and increasing overall capacity to 1,532." He said the "expansion of the facility was done without coordination with local agencies and could pose substantial risk to both detainees and first responders."
(ICE in a statement denied that the facility has been expanded. It said the 432 beds were always available but were not previously in service.)
Crow in his letter cited two recent cases of chicken pox at the complex, which ICE had previously confirmed along with a case of mumps. He said in the letter that "it is my understanding" that the center has one physician.
In a statement Wednesday, Crow said he went to the center after sending the letter, asking for a tour "to learn more." He said he was denied entry and was told he "could only visit if approved by the facility."
“Over the past few weeks, we have heard multiple reports of viral outbreaks that have led to quarantines, a lack of responsive medical care, and disconcerting living conditions in the ICE facility,” Crow said in his statement.
“In trying to visit the facility [Wednesday], we hoped to get an accurate and unvarnished understanding of the conditions inside. We are currently following up with DHS to determine when we will be able to visit, but in light of such stories, the inability to access raises concerns about oversight.”
In response, ICE official Jeffrey D. Lynch issued his own statement:
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) routinely supports tours of its detention facilities by members of the media, elected officials and other stakeholders such as [non-governmental organizations], community organizations, academia, etc., in the interest of transparency. 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."
Kara Mason, of the Aurora Sentinel and a Colorado Politics contributor, was at the scene of Crow's attempted visit. She reports that a supervisor at the center told Crow that "we have members of Congress in here all the time," but that there is a process to follow to gain entry.
The ICE statement added this:
“In January 2019, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) headquarters authorized the opening of the recently remodeled 432-bed facility adjacent to the Denver Contract Detention Facility to house new detainees in Aurora, Colorado for 90 days. 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. Inaccurate news releases detract from our core mission of detaining and removing criminal aliens from our community to protect public safety.”
Crow was one of a number of congressional Democrats who have paid surprise visits to ICE facilities recently and were denied access.
In 2018, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and then-Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida were turned away during unannounced visits to ICE detention centers, The Washington Post reports.