Hobart group locked in battle with unannounced foe
By Karen Caffarini Post-Tribune correspondent March 28, 2014 10:10PM
A discarded sofa sits in the parking lot of the former St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church on 49th Avenue in Hobart. The building, which has been vandalized in the past, recently was boarded up by its new owner, The GEO Group. | Karen Caffarini~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 30, 2014 6:03AM
HOBART — Members of Concerned Citizens of Hobart are taking their mission to derail possible construction of a for-profit immigrant detention center to the streets, while the city’s elected officials say they can’t talk about something that hasn’t been proposed.
About 20 members of the grassroots group will go door-to-door Sunday afternoon asking residents to sign a petition requesting the City Council to keep Hobart “the Friendly City” and support the group in preventing the construction of a for-profit immigrant prison.
The petition states such a facility would damage property values and hamper efforts to keep Hobart an attractive place to live.
GEO Group of Boca Raton, Fla., a builder and operator of detention centers and for-profit prisons, purchased the former St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church property on 49th Avenue months ago that fueled the community speculation.
GEO spokesman Pablo Paez said the company is just introducing itself to the community and has no specific plans.
“Currently, there is no formal proposal from the federal government for any facility, and we hope the misinformation that is being distributed does not confuse area residents,” GEO said in a statement. “We ... look forward to educating the community about our business. We believe there are strong opportunities for economic growth, investment and jobs, and we know that is a goal that everyone shares.”
One member of the citizens group, Darlene Vasil, said she’s already been out in her neighborhood gathering signatures and will be back out again Sunday.
“I don’t get far in my speech and people are already raising their arms and ready to sign,” said Vasil, who lives near the property.
Vasil said she’s gotten more than 100 signatures on her own so far.
She said this Sunday’s drive is in lieu of the group’s regular Sunday meetings at a local church.
Paulie Garcia, of East Chicago, a member of 219MIGHT, Mass Incarceration and GEO Halt Team, said 350 to 400 signatures have been collected so far on the Hobart petition.
Vasil said each person circulating petitions will present the signatures to their local council member.
Garcia said 219MIGHT, a regional group opposed to the building of an immigrant detention center in Hobart and the way in which detainees are treated in the centers, has another petition posted on its Facebook page that anyone can sign.
Two council members contacted said they were unaware of the petition drive, and again said no plans for a detention center have been presented to the city.
“I’ve had no correspondence with GEO for months. I don’t envision anything happening,” said Councilman John Brezik, D-5th, whose district includes the property. “There’s no information to base anything on.”
Council President Jerry Herzog, D-1st, said the council won’t keep talking about something that’s not in existence, but added that it has always considered what the citizens want in the seven years he’s been on the council.
Members of both Concerned Citizens of Hobart and 219MIGHT have pointed to published reports and lawsuits concerning GEO facilities, including a recent hunger strike at the GEO detention center in Tacoma, Wash., over allegations of conditions there and deportation in general.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said the agency is still developing its acquisition strategy based on the responses it received in 2012.
According to a statement from the agency, “The decision to move forward with a request for proposal is pending. ICE has identified a need for an immigration detention facility within the greater Chicago area.”
Regarding GEO facilities, spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said, ICE is committed to intelligent, effective, safe and humane enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws.