The GEO immigration detention center in Aurora on Monday, July 22, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The activists who desecrated the American flag flying over the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Aurora committed an outrage against our community.

This incident, which occurred when nearly 2,000 people from the metro area joined a national protest against immigration policies, thrust Aurora into the nation’s spotlight. Although several of the groups who sponsored the protest on July 12 are aiding the perpetrators’ attempt to hide, Aurora police have cited one and will charge the others.

Dave Gruber

This nationwide focus on ICE detention facilities was orchestrated to pivot attention away from the immigration crisis at the border. Both political parties are to blame for failing to create a sensible framework to deal with that problem.  Instead of working on an immigration solution, these coordinated protests focus on the result of the political failure — undocumented immigrants whose claims of asylum have been rejected by the court and have been sentenced to return to their country of origin. Instead of working to build a consensus, national organizers have worsened the rift between the two political sides. The failure of this national policy debate led to the controversy in Aurora.

Every American has the right to protest. Veterans have fought both for our right to assemble and our freedom of speech. Unfortunately, many of the national claims the protesters in Aurora rallied behind were simply not true or were grossly distorted. This overblown and inflated rhetoric created a coalition of both peaceful protesters and direct-action organizations where something bad was bound to occur.

Kids in cages!

Drinking from toilets!

Rampant disease!  


I visited the Aurora processing center on July 17, a few days before Colorado’s congressional delegation. I saw for myself how exaggerated these allegations are.

The Aurora detention center has operated in the same location under both Democratic and Republican administrations. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uses the same federal acquisition regulations to administer its contract with the company that runs it, GEO Group, as NASA uses with Lockheed Martin to build spacecraft. 

These contracts are incredibly thorough and define every element of the detainee process, from bringing them in, bedding them, feeding them, providing medical and dental care, and releasing them.

A government contracting officer oversees GEO Group’s daily operation, and its overall performance is reviewed by an independent inspector general. Just like with the three units I commanded in the Air Force, the inspector general’s job is to identify and document every flaw, so each would be corrected.

Let’s review some of the criticisms of the GEO facility more closely. 

Fiction: This center is a tool to implement the administration’s family separation policy. The facility is mistreating children. 

Fact: There are no children in the Aurora center, and there never have been. 

Fiction: Residents are forced to drink water from the toilets.

Fact: This talking point can be traced back to New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It is false. For safety reasons, each sleeping area has a stainless-steel plumbing unit mounted on the wall. The top of the unit is a sink and a faucet, while the lower half is a flushing toilet. To argue that getting water from the faucet on top is the same as getting a drink “from the toilet” is like saying that when you drink from your bathroom sink, you are drinking from your toilet. That is ridiculous. These stainless-steel fixtures are standard in detention centers and prisons across the country.

Fiction: Due to lax health standards, a mumps outbreak forced hundreds of residents into solitary confinement. 

Fact: Very few immigrants receive inoculations in their home country. To prevent infectious diseases that are almost extinct in the USA from reemerging, immigrants receive a health assessment as they enter the country. They receive another when they arrive at the Aurora center.  It begins with a tuberculous X-ray scan and blood screening for diseases like mumps and chickenpox. They also receive inoculations for these diseases. After the blood sample is taken, the detainee is assigned to a room. 

When one of the samples tested positive, onsite healthcare providers immediately quarantined the infected person as well as everyone in the section where he lived. They then notified federal health agencies as required by their contract. The center’s quick work contained the contagion to fewer than 20 individuals of the nearly 1,300 housed there

Fiction: Residents are subjected to inedible food and recent news coverage even mentioned a hunger strike at this center. 

Fact: All residents receive three meals per day, unlimited snacks and access to a commissary. A recent Inspector General report found only one food violation. It dealt with a labeling issue that has since been corrected.

Fiction: The center is overcrowded, housing nearly three times the number of reported beds. 

Fact: The government’s contract with GEO Group expressly prohibits overcrowding. Before the rush of migrants on our southern border, the Aurora processing center housed about 500 people. The huge number of new asylum seekers has forced the government to expand centers around the country. Under ICE direction, the Aurora center expanded to handle 1,500 people to deal with the influx.


These dishonest claims are not just shouted at protests, they are also aimed at businesses and individuals. Banks that loan money or other companies that do business with the parent company are targeted at the national level. 

Locally, employees of the detention center have been threatened and are vulnerable to attack. Even employees of Aurora’s Chamber of Commerce have been threatened and their homes vandalized because GEO Group, a longtime member, has an employee on the Chamber board.

Do I believe there are improvements that can be made in coordination with the detention center and local governments?  Absolutely. Do I believe all deficiencies identified by the inspector general must be addressed and corrected?  Yes. Do I believe this mob mentality based on falsehoods and partial truths is fair? Absolutely not.

I am proud of Aurora’s diversity and the vibrancy our immigrant community provides us. I also empathize with those who left the violence and corruption of their home countries to find the American dream. 

We all agree our legal system needs significant work dealing with immigrants seeking asylum. In the meantime, we have ICE employees and the employees at the Aurora detention facility doing their best to operate under our broken laws. It is neither fair nor just to treat them poorly for a problem between our national leaders. We can and must do better.

Dave Gruber is council member at-large for the City of Aurora. He also is a retired Air Force colonel and a previous senior commander at Buckley AFB.  

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @gruberforaurora