AURORA, Colo. — A large group gathered outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Aurora Friday night to protest the facility, and ones like it, around the country.
The protest grew, first from a group that started marching nearby around 6 p.m., then into a much larger gathering at the ICE facility.
For some, there was an organized structure to the night.
Like other similar events around the country, a group called Lights for Liberty helped organize a gathering that featured speakers and planned a vigil.
Joe Montoya said he was drawn to the protest because he is saddened by the images of migrant children being separated from their parents.
"I couldn’t see my children being somewhere like this. I think they should be with their parents, give them a chance to the life they don’t have," he said. "It breaks my heart to see them separated from their parents because I couldn’t imagine my children being separated from me."
"I am here because I have a deep love for my friends in the immigrant community, many who are facing deportation," said Theo Spain, who also joined the protest. "I believe that the whole machine of detainment and deportation is incredibly cruel and unjust and I believe what’s happening surmounts to torture, the splitting of families is unconscionable."
"The immigration policies that the United States has won't stop immigration it will merely force people to go through dangerous routes," said Richard Folsom, who helped organize a march earlier in the evening. Folsom said he is part of the National Coalition to Close Concentration Camps, which advocates for the shutdown of ICE detention facilities.
Throughout the evening, protesters began to divide into separate groups. Lights for Liberty continued with several planned speakers, while another large group left the public street and entered the detention center grounds - federal property.
Protesters in that group chanted right outside the front door of the ICE facility. They lowered flags, including an American flag, that was flying outside the detention center, then replaced the flags with their own. One appeared to be a Mexican flag, another looked like an upside-down spray-painted thin blue line flag that Aurora Police Department spokesperson Crystal McCoy said was presumably brought by an attendee.
Organizers with Lights for Liberty grew concerned about the entire group's safety and frustrated that some protesters were defying their wishes to stay off federal property. Eventually, Lights for Liberty asked the group to disperse and go home, and a large portion of the protesters left.
Those who chose to stay ultimately held their own version of a candlelight vigil. Eventually, everyone left the detention facility around 9:30 p.m.
Once the crowd cleared, officials from inside the ICE facility came outside to replace the flags and clean up the items left behind by protesters.
Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz released the following statement about the protests Saturday morning:
As many of you know, last night a large protest was held at the GEO/ICE facility in Aurora. A large majority of the people in attendance behaved responsibly and peacefully. As in many of these kinds of events, a few embedded individuals within the crowd were intent on inappropriate and even unlawful behavior. This included trespassing onto facility grounds via a vehicle bridge located on the west side of the facility.
In the days prior to the event, a great deal of planning went into addressing our response to the protest. On a site visit, both Deputy Chief O'keefe and I highly recommended to the GEO/ICE staff that they secure the entire width of the bridge leading into the facility with water filled barriers to prevent vehicles, and pedestrians from entering. It seemed from the conversation that they were planning to take our advice.
Just prior to the protest, GEO/ICE officials placed several traffic cones, along with a light-weight yellow plastic chain that was taped to the cones instead of the water-filled jersey barriers we had strongly recommended. Attached to the makeshift barrier was a small sign that basically said in English and Spanish, “Private property, No trespassing”.
You can imagine this did nothing to prevent and/or stop even one person from entering.
Once a few people opted to disobey the sign and the barrier, hundreds of other people followed them onto the property approaching the front door. When people crossed the bridge, that’s when the activities you saw on the news occurred. A group of folks removed three flags being flown in front of the facility, including the U.S. Flag. The three flags were replaced with the Mexican national flag, a desecrated upside down with some red spray paint written on it thin blue line flag, and a flag that read “F##k the Cops”. This same group attempted to burn the U.S. flag that had been removed from the flag pole.
We estimate between 1500-2000 people attended this protest. Many children were part of the protest, as well as several physically challenged folks and the elderly. We were aware of the flag activity when it happened.
The decision to not intervene at the time was based on protecting the safety of the large majority who were acting peacefully, and the safety of the officers. Our folks were more than ready to decisively engage had we witnessed assaultive behavior or damage to the building or surrounding property that could jeopardize its security or public safety. Beyond the removal, attempted destruction of the US flag, replacement of the flags, and some signs and poles being put on the main doors and windows, the protesters did not engage in behavior that warranted immediate intervention.
There are those who believe that once the flags were removed and burned we should have moved in on the massive crowd. I completely share those sentiments, but it’s also important that we are strategic in doing what we can to not escalate a situation to where our officers and innocent protestors could get hurt.
At the point when less than peaceful demonstrators emerged from the crowd and took down the United States Flag, and two others representatives from the GEO/ICE Facility wanted to address those demonstrators. We asked them to delay that action while we communicated with the protest organizer. As a result, the protest organizer encouraged protestors to leave as they too felt the protest was becoming less than peaceful. A large majority of the crowd dispersed at their urging. The crowd then de-escalated, and the need for intervention dissipated.
In the days to come we will be reviewing any available video in order to identify and pursue prosecution of those involved in criminal behavior. If anyone has cellphone video of these individuals please contact us at email@example.com.
Our officers who worked that night, particularly those who engaged with the public as they came and left, did an incredible job in helping to establish a professional tone with the majority of folks who’s goal it was to peacefully protest.
Gov. Jared Polis almost condemned the protests.
"Of course I condemn the desecration of our flag, who wouldn't?" Polis tweeted. "Now will you condemn the ongoing and even more serious offense to our flag and values of putting children in cages and tearing families apart?"
The protests are ahead of potential nationwide immigration raids this weekend.
The raids, which federal authorities refer to as targeted enforcement, are scheduled to begin Sunday, two senior Department of Homeland Security officials told NBC News. The raids were originally scheduled to happen three weeks ago, but were postponed by President Donald Trump.
The mass raids, to be conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), are set to target roughly 2,000 people with final orders of removal, including families whose immigration cases had been fast-tracked by judges. They will take place in the same 10 cities that were revealed under the previous plans, the officials told NBC News.
The previously named cities were: Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York and San Francisco, but a source said that two of those cities may change.
ICE would not confirm Denver was among the cities due to safety of personnel.
ICE said in a statement that they prioritize the arrest and removal of "unlawfully present aliens who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security." They also said anyone in violation of immigration laws is subject to arrest and removal from the U.S."
This is not the first operation of its kind: Similar raids have been conducted regularly since 2003, often producing hundreds of arrests, according to the Associated Press.
Local immigration attorney David Simmons said it is legal to conduct the raids: "The Immigration Nationality Act allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enforce the immigration laws, and if an individual is in the United States in violation of those laws, they have the right to arrest, detain and remove those individuals."
Gov. Jared Polis said the actions "make our communities less safe."
There were no reports of any injuries during Friday night's protests. McCoy said there were no arrests.
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