On Valentine's Day eve, while last-minute lovers were raiding grocery stores for cheap chocolates, plastic-wrapped flowers and prefab love notes, Jordan Garcia raced east on 14th Avenue toward the GEO Aurora ICE Processing Center. "I want to get there before Wade Castle leaves for the day. He's the guy in charge," Garcia said. As the Immigrant Ally Organizing Director of the American Friends Service Committee and a member of Coloradans for Immigrant Rights, Garcia planned to hand-deliver 516 valentines to the facility, and he hoped Castle would give to the detainees.
How many detainees are in this privately operated Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility? Officers decline to say.
CFIR started delivering valentines to the processing center six years ago, after a released detainee talked about feeling isolated and lonely inside the facility. Activists brainstormed a remedy: They decided to send valentines, and have been doing it ever since.
Two supporters joined Garcia for his wild, valentine ride. Sitting shotgun was Maureen Flanigan, the board president of the Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church. In 1995, she took an ecumenical class in justice issues. When the class was over, she and her peers began delivering food to migrant camps, and she has been involved in the immigrant justice movement ever since.
In the backseat, squished beneath a box of valentines, Lee Hurter listened to Flanigan and Garcia banter. Hurter is from Massachusetts; while he has only recently involved himself in immigrant rights, he has been involved in the fights against the war on drugs and in favor of prison reform for over a decade.
While the car sped east, Flanigan described her travels to the desert south of Tucson, where she helped deliver food and water to migrants suffering the nightmare trek from Guatemala and Mexico into the United States. She has witnessed the agony of the desert; she has witnessed the agony of the courts. "They took us to watch a streamline, where seventy people go through immigration court at one time," she said. "People are shackled. They've had five minutes with a lawyer at most. They're told to say, 'I'm guilty," so they say, 'I'm guilty.' It's not constitutional. I remember one guy in court. He says, 'I'm sorry I broke your laws, but my family is starving. What should I do?' He is crying. We're all crying."
Flanigan appreciates CFIR because the organization makes room for her church community: "We're from the suburbs, where it's lily white. I'm not Latina. Here we can join the struggle. We are here as allies."
Garcia stopped at a Walgreens on East Colfax and ran in to buy bags of chocolates to give to the detention center officers. When he returned, Flanigan passed a fair trade fruit and nut bar to her comrades. They chewed with gusto as she continued: "When we're in the desert, we listen to people, and they line up to tell us their stories. You can see it in their feet and in their eyes: They're traumatized."
Recently, she delivered a presentation to a group of students at Swansea Elementary. "I tell them how we left caches of water and food for immigrants who were trying to cross the desert," she recalled. "At the presentation, I ask the kids what they'd learned. One boy speaks up. He says, 'I learned that if you're thirsty, you have the right to drink water, even if you're in the desert.'"
Garcia parked, and the trio of activists lugged the box of valentines down the sidewalk, over a creek and toward the detention center. Inside the lobby, they joined people waiting for news about loved ones. Two burly officers guarding the front desk asked Garcia what he wanted.
"I'm with the American Friends Service Committee. We're here to deliver valentines," he said.
"Valentines?" an officer asked.
"Yes. We called earlier. We're here to deliver valentines for the detainees. We'd like to give them to Wade Castle."
"Just a second." The guard made a call, mumbled into the receiver and then hung up. "Wade Castle's not here. Someone else will be here to accept them soon."
The waiting began.
"One thing I've gotten used to while doing this work is waiting. I've become really patient," Garcia said.
Flanigan handed valentines to the people in the lobby; some forced a smile or a nod in response.
Eventually an officer came out and accepted the box of pink and purple cards and two bags of chocolates from Garcia. "I'll make sure they get them," he said, declining to be interviewed or photographed.
The activists left, unsure whether or not the cards would ever reach their intended recipients.
"I always tell them we're coming, and they always act surprised," Garcia said. "In the past, there has been more recognition from the officers that the valentines are good for morale. Last year, the recreation person said that everyone got one."
Despite being uncertain that the detainees would ever see their valentines, Hurter remained steadfast in his budding commitment: "Why am I here today? I care about folks that are locked up and not treated like humans. I think it's important that people on the inside know that other people are thinking about them, that other people care."
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