When CoreCivic Comes to Town: Lessons from Elkhart’s Grassroots Struggle to Preserve a Vibrant Community

Main Street in Elkhart, Indiana
Main Street in Elkhart, Indiana. (Rowan Lynam/MEDILL)

By Sydney Boles and Rowan Lynam
Medill Reports

In Pembroke, Illinois, it started in Hopkins Park; in Gary, it started right across the street from their small airport; in Crete, it was Balmoral Park. In Elkhart, Indiana, it started at the intersection of county roads 7 and 26. It was a stretch of weeds and snow next to the county’s correctional facility and its huge, methane-leaking landfill, catty-corner from the well-worked farmland of German immigrants.

This unremarkable piece of nowhere, Indiana would have held over a thousand immigrants in ICE civil detention. They would have been held in a private, maximum-security facility with the capability to hold 60 in solitary confinement, encased in a total visual barrier.

Would have — because Elkhart, like so many Chicagoland towns before it, said no.

CoreCivic Comes to Town

Civil immigration detention in the U.S. is growing. Since President Donald Trump’s directive to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to round up and deport undocumented immigrants regardless of priority status, federal agencies and private prison companies alike have been preparing for a capacity expansion of nearly 10,000.

The Midwest is a primary target for that expansion.

The region lacks any private detention facilities, instead splitting its immigration detention capacity between several county jails that have contracts with ICE. The country’s two major for-profit detention players, CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and The GEO Group, have been struggling to change that since 2012, when CoreCivic set its sights on Crete, Illinois.

CoreCivic has withdrawn its proposals for immigration detention centers time and time again over the past six years, but it has continued to search for a home in the greater Chicago region. In Gary, Indiana, there was a riotous anti-deportation campaign, and the proposal never came to fruition.

But this time, in Elkhart, CoreCivic was seeking to open a detention center securely in Trump country. A full two hours’ drive from Chicago, this county voted 68 percent for the President and seemed far away from the coalescing immigrant and labor forces to the west.

Evidently, it wasn’t far enough.

An unlikely pair lead the Coalition Against the Elkhart County Immigrant Detention Center, which formed immediately following CoreCivic’s proposal. Richard Aguirre, a 50-something professor at the local Mennonite university and longtime progressive activist, is a mustachioed Mr. Rogers type, soft-spoken and thoughtful. Marbella Chavez, 22, came back to her hometown specifically for this fight, having grown into activism at college in Bloomington, Ind. The two organized a consciousness-raising event at the Concord Junior High School cafeteria on Dec. 14, 2017, where about 300 people, bundled in coats and scarves, made their way over a parking lot slick with black ice to attend.

The cafetorium, as it would be affectionately introduced by the superintendent, was packed with rows of green plastic chairs crowded with coats slung over the backs. Residents reached across rows to shake the hands of people they recognized from neighboring counties or church congregations. Nervous energy buzzed in the room. A single person brought a poster-board sign: “Immigrants make America great.”

Richard Aguirre
Richard Aguirre (Rowan Lynam/MEDILL)

Aguirre waited with a soft smile in front of the projector, an image of the Statue of Liberty behind bars casting bright yellow and blue light on his face. The light caught his round glasses so you couldn’t quite see his eyes. It was time to start.

The City With a Heart

Elkhart is a city of 60,000 with a bustling main street and picturesque river views. It’s called both the “RV capital of the world” and the “City with a heart.” Bordering the snowy downtown streets, standing almost as a symbol of midwestern determination in the face of economic struggle, is a 25-foot-tall traveling statue of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The resolute couple stands, pitchfork and suitcase at the ready, staring out over Elkhart as snow once again begins to fall. They will remain with Elkhart as silent, colossal watchers until February 2018, when they will continue on their midwestern journey.

This is a city on the mend, bouncing back from the 2008 economic crash that left the RV industry in tatters and Elkhart with the highest unemployment rate in the state, at nearly 20 percent. Now unemployment hovers around 2 percent, a number economists deem well above full employment. In other words, most people who want a job can find one.

County Commissioner Mike Yoder, a centrist Republican torn between his Trump-voting constituency and his own track record of supporting immigration reform, is one of three commissioners who would have voted for or against the detention center. Once the CoreCivic proposal got approval from a zoning board, Yoder and his two fellow commissioners, Suzanne Weirick and Frank Lucchese, would have voted the final yes or no. It was towards these three local politicians that the coalition directed their substantial activism.

He was the only commissioner who showed up.

The point of the event, Chavez would say later, was to make opposition to the facility easy to spread from neighbor to neighbor. “You can’t really mobilize people to do something if they’re not informed about it,” she said.

It was a tactic Chavez learned from Black Lives Matter events at the University of Indiana. After the 2016 death of her uncle at the hands of the Oklahoma City Police, Chavez learned how affirming it could be to stand up in front of a crowd and tell her story.

Just over five feet tall with bright eyes, Chavez spoke with a practiced calm. The eldest of four children born to Mexican immigrants, she grew up translating for her parents at doctors appointments, school meetings and immigration proceedings. When her family moved from Chicago to Elkhart 12 years ago, neighbors spray-painted racist slurs on the family car within weeks, she said.

But the racism she experienced didn’t keep Chavez from believing in Elkhart. “The number of people who are supportive of Latinos and immigrants coming to the community far outweighs the number of people who are resentful of us,” she said.

“I think they [CoreCivic] hope that our momentum dies down,” Chavez told the audience, laughing. “But I am here to tell you that this will not happen.” The crowd laughed with her. She directed attendees to the back of the room, where she had laid out postcards and letter-writing materials on folding tables.

Chavez intends to continue pursuing a career in medicine, but she put her education on hold – and her family at risk – to defend the town. “If this gets passed the commissioners,” she said, “If they try building this, you bet I’m gonna sit in front of a bulldozer. I’m going to put myself on the line to do whatever I can to help stop this.”

In the coming weeks, Chavez and Aguirre would hold prayer vigils, conference calls with activists who had beaten CoreCivic in other towns and reach out to the local business community. Chavez even mobilized her three younger siblings to contact their friends via Snapchat. The only worry was that the white Republican business leaders who relied on immigrant labor wouldn’t dare come out against the center.

Elkhart’s Hispanic population has topped 20 percent in recent years, and Aguirre has spoken with business leaders who, despite being Trump supporters, fear they could lose their minority workers if a detention center came to Elkhart.

“[One manager] said, ‘I love the Latino workers because they work hard,’” Aguirre recounts. “‘They showed that they are just the greatest employees and I don’t want this facility here because they’ll leave.’”

Playing in Grey

On Jan. 18, 2018, Jeremy Stutsman, the Democratic mayor of the Elkhart County town of Goshen, posted an open letter to the community on his Facebook page. It read, in part: “CoreCivic… would create jobs we don’t need at wages we don’t want. Any tax dollars generated by the project wouldn’t be enough to offset the long-lasting damage such a facility would do to our county—both in terms of perception and in terms of creating an unwanted unwelcoming reputation.” Below the mayor’s signature were the names of prominent community members, business leaders and two towns’ chambers of commerce.

The following day, CoreCivic formally withdrew their proposal.

But for a long while, the future of Elkhart was in the hands of three county commissioners who had a hard choice to make.

Back in December, before CoreCivic withdrew, Yoder considered the political consequences of his vote over a ham and cheese omelette at Angel’s House of Pancakes, an all-day breakfast diner tucked into the corner of a strip mall.

“If we said yes to this, it would be politically potentially really bad,” he said, shrugging. “People’s memories are short, but I would be up for re-election the year that this opens.” It’s not just about welcoming all people, he explained: It’s about welcoming all industries, too, even if they might not be the most palatable.

(The night before, at the school, he had joked about the high barrier that would encase the CoreCivic facility. “The only thing you’ll see is a welcome sign. Huh. Oh sorry. A bad joke.”)

Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder
Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder (Rowan Lynam/MEDILL)

In five-minute intervals, Yoder would gently decline a refill on coffee from Angel’s attentive waitstaff. It was already close to 11 in the morning, and the breakfast crowd had begun to empty out of the spacious diner. Something about the interior felt too big — like it had had another life as a department store before transitioning to pancakes.

The decision would have defined the small-town official’s political identity. He’d either be the fear-mongering racist who was comfortable alienating Elkhart’s large Hispanic minority, or the bleeding-heart liberal who kept good jobs out of Elkhart. But there was something aspirational in Yoder’s eyes when he talked about the vote.

He knew about CoreCivic’s well-documented history of civil rights abuses. For him, that history wasn’t a deterrent. It was an opportunity to exert oversight, something private prisons have always resisted. He wanted to make a real difference in a problematic industry.

“Regular oversight,” he stressed, looking over the top of his glasses. “Not just once a year or whenever there’s complaints. Regular.”

Now he won’t get the chance.

“There was absolutely no community interest in [oversight],” Yoder admitted over the phone in late January, just days after CoreCivic withdrew. The organized opposition to the facility didn’t want to play in shades of grey; they wanted Yoder to say no. “It was my attempt to make a little bit of lemonade, but it was essentially DOA.”

The Battle and The War

Based firmly in the local faith community, the Coalition in Elkhart attacked the CoreCivic proposal from multiple fronts — with land use, economic, humanitarian and moral arguments against immigration detention. It brought Catholics together with Mennonites, union workers together with immigration activists, and the white community together with the very people who would be affected by an increased ICE presence.

Sreekala Rajagopalan was a small middle-aged Indian woman who held her hands close to her chest when she talked. She’d lived in Goshen for 45 years, and it was her timorous voice that resonated the loudest among the arguments against the center.

“I feel that the attack will be on all brown people, whether they are documented or undocumented,” she said, her voice beginning to wobble. “Am I supposed to carry my — I’m sorry, I’m vibrating with emotions.” Rajagopalan paused and breathed, closing her eyes for a moment. When she spoke again her voice was hard. “But am I supposed to carry my documents showing that I’m a citizen in my pocket all the time?”

Commissioner Suzanne Weirick, another of the three who would have decided the fate of the detention center, said she received more than 300 letters and postcards from the vocal coalition opposing the facility, and just a handful supporting it. Throughout the process, Weirick solicited evidence and opinions from all sides to make the best decision for the county. But she couldn’t let emotional pleas distract her from practical concerns, she said. She figured that most of the immigrants in detention would have been convicted of crimes. “ I’m sorry, if you’re a felon, your rights are kind of suspended while you’re serving your conviction. Whether you’re in detention in Indiana or in Arizona, you’re probably not going to be getting Ben and Jerry’s.”

In fact, ICE detainees are going through a civil process, not a criminal one. De jure detention has never been intended as a punishment; it’s meant to hold people until they’re processed through immigration court.

Misinformation swirled around the proposal — would the facility hold felons or just undocumented people rounded up by ICE? Would they be held in minimum or maximum security? No one seemed to have the exact answer, making the commissioners’ decision all the more harrowing.

Ultimately Weirick felt it was a clear decision for the commissioners. “Overwhelmingly, the community said that this was not a vibrant community initiative.”

Frank Lucchese, the third county commissioner, did not return requests for an interview.

Yoder said there was “obviously a sense of relief” about CoreCivic choosing to leave Elkhart. He chose his words carefully, pausing for long moments. The community would have to evaluate what almost happened to them, and Yoder wasn’t sure what the next steps would be. He laughed over the phone. “I’ve not really given you anything there, have I?”

But Marbella Chavez knew exactly how to proceed: A party. “Stay tuned,” she said in a text, followed by a smiling emoji.

Photo at top: Main Street in Elkhart, Indiana. (Rowan Lynam/MEDILL)