GOSHEN — A company that operates detention centers for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is interested in property in Elkhart County for such a facility.
County Commissioner Mike Yoder said CoreCivic of Nashville, Tennessee, is interested in property across the road from the Elkhart County Landfill along C.R. 7. A CoreCivic spokesperson said via email Thursday she cannot comment on specific proposals due to "competitive reasons."
The C.R. 7 property is owned by Fir Properties LLC of Elkhart and is farmland now, according to county records. Several parcels along the west side of C.R. 7 are owned by Fir Properties and The Goshen News could not confirm Thursday the exact parcel that may be in play.
The property is zoned Manufacturing-2 with a planned unit development overlay, Yoder said, because several years ago another project was planned there and was never constructed.
Yoder said he expects the detention center proposal will be controversial and he asked local residents to carefully study the proposal when it is unveiled.
“I think everybody should remain calm and ask questions, and not make a gut reaction,” Yoder said.
He said rumors are that the facility will lead to more detentions of undocumented immigrants.
“That is not what this is doing,” Yoder said. “The people who will be at this center will have already been convicted and will be awaiting deportation.”
Yoder said he learned of the proposal earlier this fall and since then, not much has happened. According to Yoder, if CoreCivic wants to continue with the proposal, the company will have to file an application for a change of zoning and/or a new detailed planned unit development with the county plan commission. Once the commission decides on a favorable or unfavorable recommendation on the plan, the recommendation will be forwarded to the three commissioners — Yoder, Frank Lucchese and Suzanne Weirick — for a vote. Lucchese and Weirick did not respond to phone messages Thursday.
“We just know if they file, and I suspect they will, sometime between now and the middle of January we will be asked to make a zoning decision,” Yoder said.
The deadline for filing a request with the plan commission to be heard in December was Nov. 6, according to the department’s filing calendar. The deadline for filing a petition with the commission for a January hearing is Dec. 4.
If the detention center is approved, Yoder estimated it would take about two years to construct.
“There is no reason for anybody to panic or for changes to occur in our community,” Yoder said. “I think our community is better able to work through this better than others as long as we keep talking and listening.”
MEETING THE PUBLIC
As he discussed the project Thursday morning, Yoder said he was on his way to meet with the first of two groups that day to inform them about the detention center proposal. He said the county commissioners have built relationships with the leaders of churches and organizations, chambers of commerce and businesses and want to keep them informed about what is going on.
“Our primary concern is that everybody has a better understanding on what is involved and how this impacts our community,” he said.
One of the groups he met with included Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman, Bryan Mierau, executive director of the Center For Healing & Hope, and Richard Aguirre, the founder of Elkhart County HOPE, a group that advocates for immigrants.
“I think there will be opposition and (opponents) will be seeking support from communities that have successfully fought them,” Aguirre said, referring to a proposal by The GEO Group to build a detention center for immigrants near the Gary/Chicago International Airport. The Gary City Council unanimously rejected that proposal in May 2016 in response to community opposition, according to a Chicago Tribune article.
In June 2013, CoreCivic, then known as Corrections Corporation of America, withdrew a proposal to build a similar facility in Joliett, Illinois.
BAD FOR BUSINESS?
Aguirre said he believes having a private-run immigration detention facility would harm the community’s appeal — and the ability to fill the thousands of unfilled jobs currently available in Elkhart County.
He said an influx of ICE agents routinely driving through local communities would cause concern for undocumented immigrants, as well as legal immigrants.
“Whether people want to admit it or not, we know undocumented immigrants are employed locally and we know they are employed in manufacturing in Elkhart County,” Aguirre said. “I know there is concern that if this facility would come to Elkhart County, people would leave for other communities they consider are safer.”
Mireau agreed with Aguirre that such a facility would drive away undocumented people who live in the county and could be a liability to attracting new residents.
"I think there would be a larger economic loss to our county than an economic gain if this goes through," he said.
Mierau pointed out that Goshen’s recent recognition by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce as community of the year was based in part on the city’s embracing a diversity of cultures.
“I would express concern that the momentum toward the community value in diversity is being threatened,” he said.
Aguirre also shared his concerns that the Trump administration is returning to the use of private companies to operate prisons and detention centers, something he said former President Barack Obama was moving away from.
“When people are being detained by the government they should be detained in government prisons,” Aguirre said. “Private prisons have been shown to have problems, both in transparency and in protecting people’s rights.”
Mayor Stutsman said he first heard about the detention center proposal from Yoder Thursday. He said he is waiting to get more information before deciding what his next step will be.
“I think the most important thing, no matter what side of the fence you are on (for) this project, the most important thing to do is get all the facts and find out if it is going to happen and then work through whatever we need to work through as a community and county,” Stutsman said.
However, the mayor said the idea of another facility near the Elkhart County jail, which would be across the road from the detention center, is something the county community may not want.
“How many types of these facilities do we want in our area?” Stutsman said. “And there are a whole slew of social aspects that could really affect our communities.”
ICE has asked companies to provide information on possible locations for four detention centers nationwide. One center has to be within 180 miles of the federal immigration office in Chicago and needs to house 400 to 1,200 people, according to a published request for information.