One of the most upsetting parts of my job at Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, the state’s largest immigration legal services nonprofit, is learning the reasons why people fled their homes in search of safety in the United States. As you might imagine, many escaped unimaginable horrors. I’m talking about people who survived torture, rape, or watched as their loved ones were murdered in front of them. 

I’m an immigration attorney who frequently represents asylum seekers. Where do I meet these clients? At a prison in Aurora that’s contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and currently holds 673 migrants. People who are transferred there, often under the veil of night, rarely know that snow-covered peaks stand tall on the horizon right outside the door of the prison. They do not have access to the outdoors; instead, the only source of fresh air comes from rooms with four walls covered by mesh cages at the top. 

The staff has been accused of racial discrimination and excessive use of force. And a recent autopsy report of a 39-year-old Nicaraguan man who suffered a pulmonary embolism last year suggests his death was potentially avoidable had he been diagnosed properly and received access to adequate care.

Few people leave unharmed; a 2018 meta study found that detained migrants and asylum seekers often experience severe anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who suffer the most had endured trauma in the past, reinforcing the concept that asylum seekers should not be detained. 

For these reasons, I’m stunned to see the Biden Administration considering plans to reinstate family detention and further criminalize people who cross the border seeking refuge. That possibility prompted more than a hundred House Democrats to send a letter to the president on March 28 urging him to reconsider the move, writing that the “harm of detaining children is clear.” 

The fact is there’s a more humane option, one that fulfills our obligation to welcome asylum seekers, supports our communities, and reduces the burden on U.S. taxpayers. It’s called case management: wrap-around social services that help asylum seekers access housing and secure basic necessities — connecting new arrivals with food pantries, rental assistance, medical care, job opportunities and English classes. Case management helps migrants survive in an unfamiliar country during the long wait for their cases to be adjudicated. In Colorado, about 7,300 asylum seekers wait an average of 1,239 days—3.3 years—to learn if they can make a permanent home here. 

I’m hopeful that Coloradans might be leaning away from detention. In Denver, a House Bill that would prohibit state and local governments from cooperating with federal immigration detention is making its way through the General Assembly. In Washington, I urge our federal lawmakers to help us offer a compassionate and less expensive alternative and support funding for case management.

A 2017 pilot program that provided legal help, housing referrals and medical care to more than 2,000 migrants in five cities, cost $38 per person per day, whereas the average daily cost of detention is $157, according to recent U.S. Department of Homeland Security budget figures that were calculated by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and imprisoning families costs far more. According to the pilot program report, even ICE endorsed the program because 99% of participants appeared for their mandatory check-ins and hearings. 


Each day colleagues and I do this work, we see the importance of ensuring legal representation for everyone in immigration proceedings. Although there has been a nascent movement for state and local immigrant legal defense funds, the current allocations are only able to serve a tiny fraction of the individuals in need. Additional financial support would expand access to legal services, help people secure housing, and make sure people are able to apply for their work permits so they can focus on becoming self-sufficient.

Case management would create a strong foundation, allowing asylum seekers to build a stable life in the United States. Rather than enduring further trauma inflicted by detention, clients could receive necessary social support so they could participate in their legal cases more meaningfully. This includes securing evidence critical to their claims for lasting immigration protections and accessing medical and mental health care to treat their underlying trauma. 

More asylum seekers are coming in the days ahead, and they need a safe place to settle. I urge our elected officials to make our judicial system accessible while simultaneously meeting our humanitarian obligations. Jailing people who have the right to request protection from persecution and torture under international and domestic law — and who simply want to live free from harm — does not reflect American values. If the White House can’t see that, I hope Coloradans can. 

Laura Lunn, of Denver, is director of advocacy & litigation at Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network.

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Laura Lunn

Laura Lunn, of Denver, is director of advocacy & litigation at Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network.