Coalition celebrates 'victory' against planned detention center

Marbella Chavez speaks during a “victory celebration” held by The Coalition Against the Elkhart County Detention Center at College Mennonite Church in Goshen. Chavez helped coordinate the coalition. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

GOSHEN — Marbella Chavez wanted to cry tears of joy.

Chavez, who helped coordinate the Coalition Against the Elkhart County Detention Center in opposition to a proposed immigration detention center in the area, couldn’t do that upon finding out plans for the facility had been scrapped. She was working. Regardless, the news stirred her emotions.

CoreCivic, a private corrections company based in Nashville, Tenn., had withdrawn its proposal. The coalition won.


“It was a good, happy feeling that this was over,” Chavez said Saturday during a “victory celebration” put on by the coalition at College Mennonite Church. “We won and we had successfully protected the people here.”

CoreCivic officials notified Elkhart County commissioners last Monday that they intended to withdraw the plan, marking the end of a process that started in the fall.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement in October posted a request for information on the Federal Business Opportunities website. It stated that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and ICE sought to identify potential detention sites near four larger cities — Chicago, Detroit, St. Paul and Salt Lake City.

Proposed facilities had to be within a 180-mile ground commute of the ICE office in those cities. The potential 55-acre Elkhart County site, on the west side of Elkhart County Road 7 across from the Elkhart County Solid Waste facility, fell within those guidelines as it related to Chicago.

News broke in mid-November that CoreCivic sought the land for a facility with 800 to 1,200 beds. Opposition to the facility materialized quickly after news of its proposal became public.

Later that same week, a rally in support of immigrants and refugees in Goshen kickstarted a series of protests against the detention center. Another gathering took place in South Bend in late November, organized by the coalition in partnership with La Casa de Amistad.

“We were out of the gate quickly,” said Richard Aguirre, director of corporate and foundations relations at Goshen College and another organizer of the coalition. “Within 48 hours of knowing about this we had a rally with 300 people ... We continued to have events and coordinated letter writing campaigns.”

CoreCivic in early December submitted to the Elkhart County Planning Department a detailed plan for the facility, signaling its intention to move forward with the project. It was to be 250,000 square feet with 1,152 beds and another 88-bed “special management unit.”

Less than two weeks later, the company asked to have its initial hearing with the plan commission pushed back from Jan. 11 to Feb. 8.


Meanwhile, opposition continued to coalesce.

More than 300 people attended a meeting Dec. 14 at Concord Junior High School in Elkhart. Community members held another gathering Jan. 16 at the Elkhart Public Library. Goshen mayor Jeremy Stutsman, alongside 37 other local leaders, released a letter Jan. 18 opposing the facility. Elkhart mayor Tim Neese followed suit the next day.

“I think it had a huge impact,” said Dwight Fish, an Elkhart city councilman. “The dozens and dozens of businesses, employers in this county shouted loud and clear — ‘we don’t want it.’”

CoreCivic pulled its site application Jan. 22, marking a victory for the coalition specifically and the opposition in general. With the prospect of a detention center now nixed, the coalition plans to stay together in hopes of continuing to have an impact on the local community and elsewhere.

Aguirre said it will re-brand and turn its attention to “efficacy and direct support for immigrants.”