Detained Immigrants in Aurora and Their Families Find a Home at Casa de Paz

Sarah Jackson started Casa de Paz in 2012 after a life-changing trip to the U.S. and Mexico border.
Sarah Jackson started Casa de Paz in 2012 after a life-changing trip to the U.S. and Mexico border.
Anthony Camera

Jose Cruz-Hernandez knew very little about where he was, aside from the fact that he was in a city named Aurora. He’d never been to the state of Colorado before, and yet suddenly he found himself blinking into the bright Colorado sunshine for the first time, the Rocky Mountains posing an unfamiliar and impressive sight to the west. The twenty-year-old had reason to feel disoriented: He had just exited through the front door of the Denver Contract Detention Facility, where he’d been transferred from the state of Georgia and held for nearly three months.

Although the facility has “Denver” in its name, that’s a misnomer. The nearly 300,000-square-foot building is actually located in Aurora, tucked behind a strip mall on Peoria Street. As Colorado’s only immigration detention center, at any one time it can hold as many as 1,500 adults who have been picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE.

While official government numbers vary among open-records requests, independent studies show that there are nearly 200 such facilities in the United States, all part of the world’s largest immigration-detention system.

Cruz-Hernandez is one of roughly 400,000 individuals who pass through the system each year on average, though he considers himself lucky to have been released and not deported, as 235,413 others were during the 2015 fiscal year (the last reported count from ICE).

Yet despite feeling relief upon his release, Cruz-Hernandez had little idea of what to expect next. His father, who was also held in the windowless facility in Aurora, had been released days earlier, on June 20, and had already returned home to Georgia. Now, Cruz-Hernandez was on his own, with nothing on him except a plastic bag containing the items that he was detained with — Mexican money and a cell phone — as well as the clothes that he was wearing at the time of his arrest: a tie-dyed Ben and Jerry’s T-shirt, blue jeans and a pair of Air Jordan sneakers.

He knew one thing: He wanted to get away from the detention center. He kept moving forward, and that’s when he and three others who were released that same morning — two men and a woman — spotted a lone figure waiting for them in a parking lot.

The man, Jose Deras, led Cruz-Hernandez and the others to the Abrigo Apartments, located a block from the detention facility, at the corner of Peoria Street and East 30th Avenue. Upon entering unit 206, Cruz-Hernandez noticed that the place was tiny: a living room in front, a kitchen built along a narrow hallway, a bedroom and a closet-sized bathroom. Looking around, he also noticed pull-out couches, a television and a bookcase containing bright ceramic vases and framed photographs.

In one of the picture frames, a white piece of paper had scribbled handwriting on it that read: “This guest’s first night back with his son after being detained for two years.”

There was something about the place that immediately put Cruz-Hernandez at ease. He’d heard about Casa de Paz from another detainee inside the detention center, a guy named Martin — and it was Martin who’d used the facility’s pay phone to call Deras and organize a pickup of the four released detainees. Now, even though Cruz-Hernandez was penniless and in an unfamiliar part of the country, he had a place where he could stay for free, as well as get the help he’d need to book a flight back home to Georgia to rejoin his father, mother and sisters.

As he’d soon learn, this was all thanks to volunteers like Deras, but especially the organization’s founder, Sarah Jackson, who works tirelessly to support immigrants detained at Aurora’s immigration detention center and their families.

The modest Casa de Paz space has hosted families of detainees held in Aurora’s immigration detention center since 2012.
The modest Casa de Paz space has hosted families of detainees held in Aurora’s immigration detention center since 2012.
Anthony Camera

Since starting Casa de Paz in 2012, Sarah Jackson has hosted and assisted hundreds of people like Cruz-Hernandez. Today, Casa de Paz, which means “House of Peace” in Spanish, has become a central player around the immigration detention center in Aurora, to the extent that even the private company that runs the facility, the GEO Group, refers released detainees to Jackson’s apartment and allows visits from volunteers who are affiliated with her organization.

Recently, Casa de Paz has experienced unprecedented demand, having reached a level of notoriety within Colorado’s immigration community. Guests request to stay at Jackson’s apartment almost every night. It’s no small comfort, given the current political environment and uncertain future regarding immigration detention in the United States. With President Obama’s executive actions on immigration — preventing the deportation of up to four million undocumented immigrants — now facing legal uncertainty because of a recent Supreme Court ruling and a presumptive presidential nominee vowing to deport all estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants if he reaches office, Jackson’s small apartment is like a life raft in a tormented sea. Yet Jackson vows that she’ll face whatever the future has in store, scrambling and adapting and finding ways to help detainees and their families, just as she has from the beginning.

While other immigration activists and organizations in Colorado tend to focus on the politics of immigration and some of the particular controversies around the GEO Group-run facility in Aurora, it takes all of Jackson’s energy just to keep providing services to those coming through the Casa, and to run a separate sports organization that finances the whole operation.

Now 31 years old, Jackson says she could never have guessed that she would dedicate her young-adult years to immigration detention. As recently as 2009, she says, “immigration and detention weren’t even a blip on my radar.”

At that time, at the age of 24, she was working at a church in Colorado Springs. She had decided to take a year off from her studies at the University of Colorado because she felt directionless and didn’t want to waste her parents’ money on tuition. School had never really given her a clear path; though she later got her GED, she had dropped out of high school after being home-schooled through the eighth grade along with her two siblings.

Church at least felt like a worthwhile way to spend her time while she figured out a path for her future, and it was while working as a pastor’s assistant that she received an invitation from another Christian organization to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border to learn about immigration from a biblical perspective.

Jackson was intrigued. She was a young woman of European and Native American descent who didn’t know anyone personally affected by immigration laws or detention, and she wanted to learn more. But Jackson also had other motives, which she’s not shy about divulging today.

“I also just wanted a free trip to Mexico,” she recalls with a slightly embarrassed laugh. “I was thinking, ‘I’m going to be on a beach with a piña colada, and it’s going to be sunny all day and I’ll get a tan.’”

Instead of white sand beaches, however, Jackson was taken to Agua Prieta, which borders the Arizona town of Douglas. What she saw along the border shocked her.

Casa de Paz volunteer Jose Deras retrieves detainees from the Aurora detention center and takes them to unit 206.
Casa de Paz volunteer Jose Deras retrieves detainees from the Aurora detention center and takes them to unit 206.
Anthony Camera

One day she met a group of migrants who had already crossed the border into the U.S. illegally. Dehydrated and famished, they were under the impression that they just had to walk for thirty more minutes and they’d arrive in Phoenix. They didn’t know that they still had a grueling and dangerous 240-mile journey ahead of them.

The experience that had the biggest impact on Jackson, though, was meeting a man named Abel on the Mexican side of the border. Abel had grown up in the United States, and as far as he was concerned, Mexico was a foreign country. He only spoke English, and he hadn’t known that he was undocumented until he went to get a driver’s license at the age of sixteen.

“So they were deporting him ‘back home,’ but his home was the United States, because his parents brought him here when he was a child,” Jackson says.

Abel also told Jackson about his wife, a U.S. citizen, and his three children — one of whom he had not yet met, because his wife had been pregnant at the time he was deported. Facing a ten-year ban on applying to re-enter the country, Abel told Jackson that he couldn’t wait that long to rejoin his family. He’d already tried, and failed, to get into the United States five times when Jackson met him; he’d broken a leg jumping from the border fence on one attempt and was stung by scorpions on another.

“I saw that nothing was going to prevent him from crossing, because the love that he had for his family was unstoppable,” Jackson says.

And it was that realization that provided a course for Jackson’s life. “Even though I didn’t understand the immigration quandary we’re in, I realized that this is not right,” she says. “Particularly, that families who love each other can’t be together.... I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that I knew my life was going to change.”

That feeling gained clarity when she heard about an organization in Georgia called El Refugio, or “The Refuge.” Close to the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, El Refugio hosts families and friends who are visiting detainees.

“What they are doing is connecting families, and that did it for me, because my family is number one in my life,” Jackson says.

So she e-mailed El Refugio’s director and told him that she wanted to do the same thing in Aurora, which she had learned was the location of Colorado’s immigration detention center. In response, El Refugio’s director invited Jackson to come to Georgia, where she remembers “taking notes like crazy.”

But after returning to Colorado in 2011, a blueprint for what she wanted to do in hand, Jackson faced a number of challenges as she began scouting out a suitable location for her own version of El Refugio.

Jackson works part-time in the software industry, for a company called Church Community Builder, and she lives off what she makes from that job. She figured she had the finances to rent a home for detainees and their families, and she recalls driving around the residential streets of Aurora in search of rental signs only to discover that all of the houses were too expensive.

On top of that, she had to find a sympathetic landlord, one who wouldn’t mind complete strangers routinely staying on the property.

On the day that she visited the manager’s office at the Abrigo Apartments (having already given up on finding a house to rent), she was not expecting things to go smoothly.

She tried as long as she could to avoid the punchline, asking all the usual questions about parking, rent and lease terms, until finally the manager asked, “So how many people will be living there?”

Jackson knew she had no choice but to confess her plans. “I want to open up my home and let families stay with me when they come to visit detainees,” she blurted, ready for the meeting to end abruptly.

But to her surprise, the response was enthusiastic; it turned out that the landlord knew someone who had been held in a detention center.

By the time Jackson was handed the keys to unit 206, she had decided to name it Casa de Paz. Her goal of creating a sanctuary for families visiting loved ones in the detention center was becoming a reality.

Still, her plan developed slowly, at least initially; during the first year, Jackson says, she only averaged one family per month, usually for a couple of days at a time. To this day, the families range in size from two to seven people and are of all different ethnicities and backgrounds.

One such family that stayed at Casa de Paz recently was the Benitez family.

In early January of this year, Antonio Benitez arrived in Colorado with his three kids to visit his wife, Maria, who was being detained at the Aurora facility after being transferred from a detention center in San Diego. Maria was arrested at the border last September when returning home to Tennessee after a trip to Mexico to attend a funeral for her murdered brother. Border agents discovered that she was not a U.S. citizen and lacked proper documentation.

When Antonio and his kids drove out from Tennessee, they initially stayed at a hotel before a local attorney mentioned Jackson and told Antonio that he would be able to stay at her apartment for free.
Antonio was skeptical.

“I’d never seen a single person who wants to help,” he explains. “Organizations, maybe, but not individuals.”

Even so, he couldn’t afford another night in a hotel, so he decided to try out Casa de Paz. Like many others, his first impression was that the apartment is small, but then, as he puts it, “I found that it has an energy other places don’t have. You feel like you’re home.”

As host, Jackson cooked meals for Antonio and his kids and spent hours talking to them about Maria. Antonio marveled at Jackson’s ability to make guests feel so valued. “It’s a gift,” he says. “It made me start believing in people, because I’d never had an experience like this.”

Weeks later, when Maria was released from the detention center, on January 29, Antonio and his kids again drove from Tennessee to stay at Casa de Paz.

It’s rare that Jackson gets repeat guests, but she says she’s formed tight bonds with many who passed through Casa de Paz only briefly. Some of those memories are indelible: the woman who tried to get Jackson to take the last $10 she had, the family who had been squatting in an abandoned home after their father was detained and were so relieved to finally take a hot shower, the night when guests hailing from four different continents cooked and shared a meal together.

She has to hold on to the happy moments, because the reality is that more often than not, detainees are deported instead of released. It can be emotionally exhausting.

“There are moments when I’m an emotional basket case,” Jackson admits. “I try to do my best at handling the secondary trauma that I experience.

“Still, when I have moments of doubt, it’s a fleeting thought,” she adds. “That’s because all I need to think about is one person who’s been at the Casa that has their freedom and the look of excitement on their face when they reunite with their family. That makes it worth it.”

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Such was the case with the Benitez family, at least for the time being. Another stark reality in cases like Maria’s is that she’s hardly out of the woods. She still faces months, if not years, of court hearings and application processes to determine whether she can stay in the United States.

Antonio says that she has a good chance of remaining here, but it’s not certain. The family is taking things one day at a time.

Ted and Lisa Lytle found the issue of immigration overwhelming — until they started volunteering with Casa de Paz.
Ted and Lisa Lytle found the issue of immigration overwhelming — until they started volunteering with Casa de Paz.
Anthony Camera

There are a lot of people across the United States in Maria’s position. The U.S. currently deports or detains more than 400,000 undocumented immigrants each year, under a system that has seen dramatic expansion in a relatively short period of time.

Immigration detention on a country-wide, industrial scale didn’t really exist until the 1980s. Before that, there were historical precedents, including the forced detention of immigrants during World War I and World War II. However, the network of permanent and high-capacity detention centers that we have today is relatively new.

According to Silky Shah of the Detention Watch Network, a national organization that monitors ICE and immigration detention facilities, there are a number of moments in history when the system really expanded. One notable expansion was in 1988. That year, as part of the War on Drugs, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed, which mandated detention, without bond, for any undocumented persons who committed “aggravated felonies” (a term that the Act coined to include murder as well as drug and firearms trafficking).

“Then, in 1996, we really saw a paradigm shift in this country,” says Shah. “It became citizen versus non-citizen.”

That year, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, or IIRIRA, authorized the federal government to contract with state and local municipalities to perform immigration detention, vastly expanding the number of detention facilities. More important, IIRIRA was one of two laws that broadened the scope of “aggravated felonies” and made it more difficult for detained immigrants to obtain a bond. Now, bonds would be issued strictly on a case-by-case basis and only for “urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.”

Hans Meyer, an immigration lawyer in Denver, points out that the bond process is inherently unfair.
“In criminal law, courts set bonds as the neutral party,” he explains. “But in immigration detention, the government — the very people who are working to deport people — gets to set the first bond.... That’s like having the fox guard the hen house.”

The reason this is important, Meyer adds, is because immigration cases are time-consuming and involve filing lots of applications and motions, which is largely dependent on access to legal counsel. That becomes difficult when a defendant is locked up in a detention center.

“The difference between getting a bond and not getting a bond is usually the difference between winning and losing a case,” Meyer stresses.

Explaining some of the effects of these laws, Shah says, “Pre-1996, we probably had 6,000 to 8,000 detention beds. Post-1996, it skyrockets to 16,000 or so.

“1996 is also important because it changed how we think about immigration in this country. Not only did we have this additional population impacted by these laws — a huge expansion of the scope of laws — but now these laws were retroactive,” she explains. “So you had people who had served time for marijuana convictions or other convictions in the 1980s who are now getting caught up in the system ten years later, after they’re living their lives.”

Shah says that the 1996 laws had such a destructive effect on immigrant communities, and the system of immigration detention grew so quickly, that some lawmakers started to campaign for the laws’ repeal.

“Then 9/11 hit, and everything was squashed on that effort,” Shah continues.

Just as the War on Drugs affected immigrant communities in the 1980s, so has the War on Terror in the new millennium. The focus on securing borders and identifying illegal immigrants in the wake of the September 11 attacks reached a fever pitch.

Within two years, under the vast new Department of Homeland Security, the federal government consolidated all of its immigration enforcement by creating ICE.

“When ICE was created [in 2003], there was also a strategic plan put in place until 2012, called Operation Endgame, to remove all individuals who were deemed ‘illegal,’” says Shah. “So now there’s this idea that people who are undocumented are a threat to public safety and national security.... That led to more money being funneled in than before, so you have a huge expansion of the detention system.”

Helping to fuel this expansion were privately run detention centers, including the facility in Aurora. Since 2001, a central part of the immigration detention narrative has been the consolidation of detention under private-prison companies. Now, 62 percent of all beds used for immigration detention are operated by private prison companies, mostly by the two largest: the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group.

In order to maintain such a large detention infrastructure, ICE also imposes a national quota. System-wide, the detention-bed quota was implemented in 2009, and currently the number of beds that must be filled at all times is set at 31,000.

The other tool that incentivizes agents to arrest undocumented immigrants is “guaranteed minimums,” which apply to the individual detention facilities. As Shah explains, “Guaranteed minimums mean that ICE will pay a facility for a certain number of people to be detained there no matter what.”

This exists because facilities are paid by the federal government on a per capita basis. In the case of Aurora, the GEO Group is guaranteed payment by ICE to house 350 individuals, even if there are fewer than 350 people at the facility. And above the guaranteed minimum, ICE has worked out tiered pricing models with companies like the GEO Group that reduce the costs per head as more and more of the facilities’ beds are filled.

“So that incentivizes ICE further,” says Shah. “Because it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re going to get a coupon if we detain even more people.’”

The Aurora detention center is officially named the Denver Contract Detention Facility.
The Aurora detention center is officially named the Denver Contract Detention Facility.
Anthony Camera

Sarah Jackson’s organization doesn’t have the benefit of federal subsidies like the detention center that sits a block away does. In the beginning, she says, money was particularly tight. She had to live in the apartment herself, and by the time she had been renting the place for six months, she remembers, “I had just a nickel to my name.”

With no additional income to supplement the salary from her part-time job, Jackson was eating at soup kitchens and going to food pantries so that she could spend everything she made on rent and supplies for families staying at the Casa.

By mid-2012, it looked as if Casa de Paz was going to have to close. But Jackson’s boyfriend at the time was insistent that she could find a creative way to bring in donations.

One afternoon he said to her, “Obviously, family is a big passion for you, but what else are you passionate about?”

“Volleyball,” Jackson said after a moment’s thought. “I love to play volleyball.”

“So start a volleyball league,” her now-ex-boyfriend pushed. He added that she didn’t necessarily need to compete with the rec leagues in Denver, either; she could instead market her league to the Mexican community in metro Denver, since he knew volleyball was one of the most popular family sports in Mexico.

Jackson agreed to give it a shot, calling the new league Volleyball Latino. She and her ex-boyfriend scraped together $2,000 to run an advertisement on 92.1 FM, Radio Jose, a Spanish-language radio station.

Jackson remembers waiting anxiously by her phone on the day that the ad ran to take sign-up calls and being disappointed that only a couple of people responded. Refusing to concede defeat, she begged her friends as well as activists and lawyers in the immigration community to sign up. While this only yielded six teams for Volleyball Latino’s first season, it was enough to allow the organization to grow. With each seven-week season, Volleyball Latino added teams.

Now in its 22nd seven-week season, Volleyball Latino has grown to 83 teams, which include both co-ed squads and four-on-four women’s teams. More important, the proceeds from Volleyball Latino are enough to fully fund Casa de Paz, and Jackson has been able to move out of the apartment and into a place of her own.

The funds have also allowed her to expand other parts of Casa de Paz, including a volunteer visitation program.

When Jackson first hosted families, in 2012, she’d feel bad when they’d leave and no one was around anymore to visit their loved ones, who were still detained at the center. So she started visiting the detainees herself, to the point that she was going to the facility almost every day. Eventually it became too much, and some of the guards started spreading rumors that Jackson was either dating detainees inside or had some kind of fetish for people who are locked up.

That’s when Jackson launched Casa de Paz’s visitation program, recruiting volunteers to visit detainees at the center who have requested visitors. After two and a half years, Jackson has compiled a database of 120 people that she’s trained through video tutorials and classes to be volunteer visitors at the center.

Not only has this had a profound impact on detainees — who are often transferred to Colorado from facilities in other states and don’t have family or friends nearby — but it has also affected the visitors themselves, some of whom held different views on immigration before getting to know a detainee.

Consider Lisa Lytle among them. On a recent Saturday morning, Lytle arrives at the Aurora detention center to visit a detainee named Rafael Estrada, whom she’s never met.

Estrada is actually the second detainee that Lytle has visited through Casa de Paz’s program, but she’s still nervous that she’ll run out of things to talk about during the hour-long visit. It’s clear from looking around the waiting room that all of the other visitors are close friends or family members of detainees, not strangers; this includes groups of young kids running between the rows of chairs, seemingly unaware that they are essentially inside a private prison. A mother bends down to pick up her infant daughter and says softly, “Are you ready to see your daddy?”

The wait this morning is long. It takes an hour and a half before Lytle’s name is called and she can pass through the facility’s metal detector. She and a group of roughly twenty others are then led by a security guard down a hallway lined with motivational posters depicting nature imagery and words like “Leadership” before they are funneled into a narrow visitation room.

Inside, there are twelve booths with thickly paned windows and sets of telephones. Lytle hangs back at the entrance to wait until all of the other visitors in her group have seated themselves before she makes her way to the last station available. She isn’t sure what Estrada looks like.

As it turns out, he’s a clean-cut, 25-year-old bank teller from Arvada. And even though he has family members close to Aurora who have been able to visit him regularly, he’s happy for Lytle’s visit, talking almost nonstop for the entire hour about his life, the conditions in the detention center, and how he ended up there after being charged with a misdemeanor.

Estrada tells Lytle that he’s had to get used to the 5 a.m. wake-up call, but that the other detainees have been helpful in showing him the ropes. After three and a half weeks at the detention center, he’s keeping busy during the day by playing chess, watching soccer matches and the NBA finals, and learning to play poker.

He also never anticipated being in his situation. As a beneficiary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — one of the Obama administration’s “DREAMers” — he’d been able to work as a bank teller for six years, despite the fact that his family moved him to Colorado from Peru at the age of twelve without documentation.

At one point, he mentions, “Fridays are when people get deported.”

Lytle asks him if it’s sad.

“Sort of, but it also means that you’re moving up the queue and that your own case will be considered sooner,” Estrada answers.

The day before Lytle’s visit, a friend of Estrada’s was deported. Estrada mentions that he hopes the friend is already back in Mexico and sleeping in a “real bed.”

Estrada’s other hope is that Hans Meyer, who is representing him in his immigration case, can obtain a bond for him at an upcoming hearing. [This has since come to pass, and Estrada is now out on bond.]

Reflecting on the visit, Lytle says that going to the detention center as a volunteer visitor has completely changed her perspective on immigration.

Before she and her husband, Ted, attended a talk that Jackson gave in February at their church in Arvada, both felt that the topic was overwhelming.

As Ted puts it, “Before I met Jackson, I was wishy-washy on the subject of immigration. I mean, I understand both sides of the argument. There is a security issue, but there’s also a humanity issue. So I didn’t know. I was in this noncommittal space, where I’d put it out of mind. It was too heavy for me to grasp.”

Even so, Lisa and Ted were so impressed by Jackson’s presentation on Casa de Paz, which she gives on occasion at churches and schools, that they signed up to be volunteer visitors.

Little did they know that through the program, they would form a deep friendship with a Pakistani asylum-seeker named Malook, who has since been released from the Aurora detention center. Now the Lytles visit him regularly at his home in Boulder and are constantly amazed by new details they learn about Malook’s journey escaping Pakistan in 2012 and traveling all the way to the Mexican border to make a life in the United States and eventually bring his daughters to join him.

“Until you take the time to get to know somebody and converse with them, you cannot judge somebody based on a generalization that you read about on social media or see on the news,” explains Ted. “I think that if people took the time to visit [detained immigrants], they could relate to them as human beings. It really changes you.”

In a certain sense, Jackson would agree with the Lytles that the topic of immigration is overwhelming and confusing.

She admits that she largely ignores the politics of immigration, for multiple reasons. For one, it takes all of her energy just to run two full-fledged organizations. This includes the emotional drain of losing friends to deportation, as well as dealing with critics. It’s not that uncommon for Jackson to encounter people who disagree with her stance on helping undocumented immigrants. “I’ve encountered a lot of hateful reactions to what I’m doing here,” she says.

However, says Jackson, her critics are often people who don’t know anyone who has been affected by immigration detention, “so I always try to encourage them to personally meet someone.”

Yet even beyond the emotional burdens and time commitments associated with her work, Jackson also has to maintain a working relationship with the GEO Group, which runs the Denver Contract Detention Facility.

Therefore, Jackson leaves much of the advocacy to other groups, like the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, which provides attorney references and “know your rights” presentations to detainees in Aurora’s detention center, and the American Friends Service Committee, which holds vigils on the first Monday of every month at the corner of East 30th Avenue and Peoria Street.

Both RMIAN and AFSC keep tabs on abuses and problems arising at the GEO-run facility, which has significantly increased its capacity from when it opened in 1986 with 150 beds. (The last expansion was in 2008, when the Aurora City Council tacitly allowed 1,100 beds to be added by refusing to vote on the matter.)

RMIAN’s executive director, Mekela Goehring, acknowledges the role that Jackson plays around the detention center, and praises it as a supplement to RMIAN’s work. “Casa de Paz has been a game-changer, to have this facility across the street and be able to tell people, ‘Here’s where you can go for a couple of days while you and we try to figure out what the next steps are.’”

But RMIAN’s primary focus is providing legal counsel to detainees in the facility. Defendants in immigration hearings are not guaranteed the right to an attorney. Even with pro bono attorneys volunteering their time, Goehring says that only 15 percent of detainees have a lawyer representing them during their hearings. “It’s a shocking and unacceptable percentage of people who are having to navigate a complex and challenging legal system entirely on their own,” she says. And that’s a critical number, given that a 2011 study by the Vera Institute for Justice and the Katzmann Immigrant Representation Study Group shows that immigrants represented by a lawyer are five times more likely to win their case.

Over the years, there have also been a number of controversies at the facility, including the 2012 death of a detainee named Evalin-Ali Mandza, a 46-year-old immigrant from Gabon, who suffered a heart attack but didn’t receive proper medical attention until GEO Group staff called 911 an hour later.

More recently, a lawsuit was filed against the GEO Group alleging that the company has different work programs inside its Aurora facility that constitute forced labor — or, in the case of the facility’s dollar-a-day work program, a violation of the Colorado minimum wage law.

Hans Meyer, who along with attorney Brandt Milstein is representing the plaintiffs and recently filed a motion to turn the filing into a class-action lawsuit, says, “We feel this is the illegitimate use of private prisons — to maximize profits. Because that should not be permitted, and profiteering off of immigration detention is morally reprehensible.”

Responding to Westword’s requests for comment, the GEO Group-employed warden of the facility, Johnny Choate, says that he did not receive permission to talk about the Denver Contract Detention Center or about Casa de Paz and Sarah Jackson’s visitation program.

But Jackson says that by and large, the GEO Group has been cooperative, and guards will even call her or Casa de Paz’s main volunteer, Jose Deras (who was a detainee at the facility himself), to arrange pickups of released detainees.

Now the challenge is keeping up with demand. Given that Casa de Paz is hosting people on an almost nightly basis, Jackson has her eyes set on getting a house. 

“Plus, there’s always that hope that someone will call me from another part of the country one day and say that they want to start their own Casa de Paz,” she says.

For the time being, unit 206 at the Abrigo Apartments continues to serve as a base camp for people like Cruz-Hernandez. On the day that Deras settled him into the apartment, he took Cruz-Hernandez to his own home and cooked him a feast of carnitas and mole.

After booking a flight back to Georgia, Cruz-Hernandez only had to wait one more day before seeing his mother and sisters for the first time in three months.

These are the moments that Jackson says make it all worth it. “Even though, personally I don’t have enough bandwidth in my life to do politics, what I can do is this: simple acts of love,” she says.

“I’ve learned so much from the guests who stay here. They are the people who truly show me what it means to be thankful for life in ways I’ve never had to realize.”

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