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As detainees are released from the GEO ICE Processing Center, volunteers from Casa de Paz, including former public defender Skeet Johnson, center, wait outside to offer help on Aug. 15, 2019 in Aurora. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Gurwinder Singh Aujla was unsure of what to do after winning his asylum case and being released from the privately owned Federal ICE Processing Center in Aurora. The 19-year-old from India was legally allowed to reside in the U.S., but he knew no one in Colorado, had little money, no phone and nowhere to go. 

So he walked to a nearby gas station. 

While in detention, Aujla heard rumors that a man who worked at the gas station welcomed recently released detainees to stay at a Sikh temple in Commerce City and helped them get in contact with their families and make travel arrangements. At the gas station, he was met by Skeet and Sam Johnson, volunteers with the Denver-based nonprofit Casa de Paz, who offered to drive him to the temple.

Aujla fled India out of fear of violent persecution for his religious and political beliefs, traveling through Turkey, Greece and Spain before flying to Mexico, where he was taken into ICE custody after he walked up to a U.S. border patrol officer and requested asylum. He was transferred in the middle of the night from the border to Aurora, where he remained for four months. 

“Here, we are free,” said Aujla, from the back seat of the Johnsons’ car as they drove to Commerce City on Aug. 15.

Volunteer Rebeca Torres, left, asks newly arrived guest Juan Carlos if she can take a photo of him in front of the welcome sign at the Casa de Paz. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Most came straight from the border

Every week day at 6 p.m., volunteers from Casa de Paz gather outside of the Federal ICE Processing Center to offer people released from custody emotional support, transportation, meals, clothing, temporary housing and help coordinating how to reunite with their families. 

Since Casa de Paz opened in 2012, the nonprofit has become an integral part of the network of organizations working to support Colorado’s immigrant communities. It has provided support to more than 2,500 asylum seekers and immigrants from 30 countries. 

“Casa de Paz has been an invaluable asset to our community,” said Cristian Solano-Cordova, communications director for the Colorado Immigration Rights Coalition. “Their volunteers are often the first people on the ground providing individuals that have been detained with a meal and direct services and really just showing them compassion. And that’s really important.” 

Sitting with volunteers Anahi Russo Garrido, left, newly arrived guest Juan Carlos is comforted by Rebeca Torres, right, as he breaks into tears and thanks them all for their kindness and bringing him to the Casa de Paz. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The organization — which is powered by nearly 1,200 volunteers and is funded by donations and money generated through a volleyball league  — also runs a visitation program and hosts families wishing to visit their loved ones being held in the GEO facility in Aurora, which has seen a shift in demographics since it opened a 432-bed annex in January, bringing its capacity to 1,532 people. 

Prior to the addition of the annex, 94% of the detainees held at the Aurora facility were taken into custody by Colorado-based immigration officials. The detainee population fluxuates, but on Monday morning, there were 834 detainees in ICE custody in Aurora, about 46% of whom were picked up in Colorado, an ICE spokeswoman said. Other people are held at GEO, including some immigration detainees facing federal criminal charges who are in the custody of the U.S. Marshal Service.

That percentage would likely change again if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) –– the Obama-era immigration policy that allows individuals brought to the U.S. illegally as children to remain in the country ––  was unconstitutionally created. The ruling would leave about 15,000 individuals in Colorado at risk of deportation.

“Many of the people that are in the Aurora detention facility have been picked up at the border, who lawfully presented themselves to a port of entry or to a border patrol officer requesting asylum under federal law, and then they have been transferred up to this facility,” said Rep. Jason Crow, D-Aurora.

This year, the number of refugees worldwide reached the highest level since World War II, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

In September, the Trump administration announced plans to admit a maximum of 18,000 refugees in fiscal year 2020, compared to 30,000 in 2019. That would mark the lowest number since 1980, when Congress created the nation’s refugee resettlement program, according to the Pew Research Center. 

“Some of my family members have been waiting for a visa number since 1999, and still 20 years later all they can do is wait,” said Cristian Solano-Cordova, the communication manager for the Colorado Immigration Rights Coalition. Solano-Cordova was brought to the U.S. as a young child from Mexico and is protected from deportation by DACA.

“So that puts a lot of pressure on people who are trying to escape violent situations or conflicts. That’s the core of why people are fleeing and why we are seeing an overwhelming amount of asylum seekers.”

A stop on a long journey

Sarah Jackson founded Casa de Paz in 2012 after she traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border with her church. The harrowing stories she heard and the resilient individuals she met motivated her to do more. She started hosting recently released detainees in her tiny two-bedroom apartment across from the detention center until she raised enough money to get a bigger house.

“My goal is to use my privilege to reunite as many families as possible,” Jackson said.

“We originally began with one goal: to host families who were coming in from out of town to visit their loved ones who were locked up,” she said. “Since we first opened seven years ago, we’ve also added the post-release support program and the visitation program.”

Tucked in a cul de sac in Aurora about 15 minutes’ drive from the detention center, Casa de Paz blends in among the many suburban households. At the entrance, there is a doormat with the word “Home,” the letter “o” replaced with a faded red heart. Jackson is careful not to give out the address: she said she receives a lot of death threats.

On the wall at the home hangs a map and a sign reading, “Welcome to Casa de Paz! We would love to know where you’re from. Please place a sticker on the part of the world where you were born. Thank you!” (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The house is decorated with photos of volunteers and individuals who have passed through after being detained in immigrant detention. Colorful tacks mark the 34 countries from which they came on a world map hanging above the couch. The first floor of the house has two bedrooms with bunk beds for visitors. The closet is filled with backpacks and donated clothes.

Jackson lives in the new house, along with long-time volunteer Oliver, his wife, Mirabelle, who is still awaiting her asylum case, and their two children. Oliver was one of the first guests at Casa de Paz. He arrived in the U.S. as an asylum seeker from West Cameroon in 2016 after a three-month journey from West Africa to South America, where he continued his journey on foot to the U.S. border.

“We could not do what we do at the Casa without Oliver,” Jackson said. “He has a deep understanding of what it feels like to be in our guests’ shoes because he once was in their exact situation.”

This past year, Jackson says she’s seen a growing number of people wanting to be involved with the organization.

“I really struggle with this cycle of always feeling helpless and frustrated with everything that is happening in our world,” volunteer Shelby Mattingly said.

“I wanted to feel like there was something tangible that I can actively do outside of, you know, calling representatives and donating money. … And I know a lot of people have been feeling that way.”

Yoandy, one of the newly arrived guests to the Casa, helps himself to a meal with the other guest and volunteers. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Though Casa de Paz is not a direct partner with CIRC, Solano-Cordova says that when people call asking what services the agency provides if a family member is detained by ICE in Colorado, he sends them to Casa de Paz.

“I follow their organization on social media, and I see how much joy and happiness they bring to people after they’ve been held in these inhumane conditions within the detention centers,” Solano-Cordova said. “They provide that sigh of relief and show them compassion when they should have been shown compassion from the very beginning.”

Skeet Johnson said hearing stories like Aujla’s is what motivated him to start volunteering with the organization.

“My memory primarily is about the circumstances of why he left,” said Johnson, who was a public defender in Colorado for over 20 years. “And the danger that he was in if he had remained in his home country. And what it took for him to cross the many borders that he had to to even get to the United States with the understanding and the knowledge that they might never see his family again.

“I’ve got five kids, and one of my primary duties as a parent is to try and take care of those kids, to try and keep them safe,” he added. “So you’d find me on the border, too, if I was coming from one of those countries or I was under those circumstances.” 

A push for legislation, more oversight at Aurora’s privately-run detention center

The Aurora detention center, which is owned and operated by the private company GEO Group, became the object of multiple protests within the past year. 

In September, the American Civil Liberties Union released a scathing report that described numerous instances of misconduct, abuse and neglect within the detention facility. The report stated that 31 immigrants, including at least seven children, have died in immigration custody throughout the U.S. under the Trump administration. 

In 2017, Kamyar Samimi, a 64-year-old immigrant from Iran, died in the Aurora facility from cardiac arrest induced by withdrawal from methadone, which was prescribed for chronic back pain, the report said. The ACLU is suing the company over his death.

GEO has about three dozen facilities throughout the U.S, specializing in “corrections, detentions and mental health treatment,” according to its website. GEO was awarded its contract from the Aurora ICE Processing Center in 1986 for about 150 detainees. Today, the facility holds close to 1,500 people.  

One guest, Marcos, sits and holds a photograph of his son Fernando. The boy was born in July at Seattle Children’s Hospital with complex congenital heart disease. Marcos was driving to Washington state to be with his wife Isabel when his son was born, but was pulled over and arrested by ICE officials and brought to Aurora. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

After being denied access to the center for 24 days straight, Crow in July began making weekly visits to monitor conditions within the facility. He said his office also is working to track the number of individuals being transferred, without notice, to other facilities throughout the country.

The transfers raise a number of concerns, Crow said, one of which is that detainees are transferred away from their families and their lawyers. 

“We’re trying really hard to get our arms around this issue. We’ve submitted a number of requests for information as to why they’re doing these transfers, who they’re transferring and what the criteria is for the transfers,” he said. “We’ve received some responses and information, but still not enough. Transparency is hard to come by within this administration, and particularly within ICE.”

He’s been pushing for more transparency within the Aurora ICE facility. In May, Crow introduced an appropriations bill to Congress that enhanced congressional oversight of the private detention facility. In June, the bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, where it stalled.

But ultimately, he said, private detention centers shouldn’t exist.

Volunteer Abby Williams gets information of the plans for newly arrived guest Marcos, left, so she can enter it on the house schedule so volunteers arriving later and the next day will know who is at the home and where help is needed. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I’m a firm believer that government needs to reflect the values of the nation and the values of the community,” Crow said. “And one of those values is that we treat people with basic human dignity and respect. We are a nation of immigrants. And I think it’s important that we remember that right now.”

Crow says there’s a handful of key players in the immigration rights movement in Colorado, and Casa de Paz plays a unique role by amplifying the voices of immigrants and refugees.

“(That) is so important in making sure that we are humanizing this debate,” Crow said, “and that it’s more than just a policy level discussion.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 12:31 p.m. on Dec. 13, 2019, to correct the number of immigration detainees held at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility and the percentage of those people who were picked up by ICE officers in Colorado, and to clarify that there additional detainees held there who are in the custody of the U.S. Marshal Service.

Moe Clark is a former Colorado Sun writer. She left the publication in June 2020. Email: Twitter: @moe_clark15