The bugs were already out and biting in Conroe as people began to group together outside the Montgomery County Commissioners Court at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning. Older ladies passed out handmade signs and stickers to newcomers and explained some ground rules. “Make sure not to block the sidewalk or the street,” one woman told the others.
They were out on this workday morning to protest the new immigration detention facility that’s planned for Conroe, as they were last month, and their ranks are swelling: In June, 15 people showed up to protest, according to one organizer. Today, there were more than 40.
The Montgomery County Commissioners Court was meeting inside, and the protesters had gathered to express their displeasure at the group’s vote approving a private prison company’s planned expansion that will add 1,000 more beds to house undocumented immigrants who are being processed for deportation.
GEO Group, which is behind the expansion, already operates a 1,517-bed facility next door to the planned site. In April, the Trump administration greenlit the project; Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, will enter into a 10-year renewable contract with the private operator. GEO will build the $110 million complex by the end of 2018, and expects to generate $44 million in profits annually.
“We want greater oversight, increased transparency and accountability,” said area resident John Miller, as the group began chants of Say no to G-E-O, Say no to Con-vict-Roe. Miller and the other activists point to the fact that GEO Group has been accused of human rights violations.
Adding to this concern is an overall lack of oversight into what’s happening in the facility, located a little over a mile away from the courthouse, across some train tracks and down a dead-end road. “We want to pressure the county commissioners to cancel contract with GEO, or at least to increase oversight into potential human rights violations,” said Miller.
Even the mayor of Conroe, Toby Powell, has spoken out against the planned expansion, telling the Courier of Montgomery County in April that when the news broke, he'd only heard by reading about it in the paper. "I don't know why this hasn't been brought up to us before this announcement was made," Powell told the Courier. “I don't think that we need any more detention centers here in Conroe."
“It was driven by the federal government, and run around the city administration,” said Miller, as his fellow protestors chanted on. “Their hands are tied.”
Today, the group outside the courthouse received wary glances from clean-cut men with shiny cowboy boots peeking out from under the cuffs of pressed suit pants. Still, several cars drove by and honked, their drivers throwing thumbs-up signs out their windows in support. One car circled back around to get a photo of the protesters. Miller, impressed with today’s turnout, said: “We’ll be here again next month, and the month after that.”