In February, Stephanie Donner, legal counsel for John Hickenlooper's presidential campaign, and Veronica Figoli, president and CEO of the Denver Public Schools Foundation, were separately watching President Trump deliver the State of the Union address. They were both struck by something he said regarding the border wall.
“The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime — one of the highest in the entire country, and considered one of our nation's most dangerous cities. Now, immediately upon [the wall's] building, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of the safest cities in our country," the president said, according to the El Paso Times.
Following the address, Figoli went to Donner's house to debrief. Knowing what Trump had said was a lie, they started hatching a plan to travel to the border to witness for themselves the situation there.
"We thought together about what it would be like if we were to directly see what was happening in El Paso. Stefanie’s family is from there. We decided to bring a handful of friends and see it ourselves so we could inform ourselves and be able to speak about it," says Figoli.
The two only expected to travel to Texas for about a day and a half with five other women. But friends invited other friends, and the group expanded to 33 women from a wide range of professions.
"We were very intentional about having a diverse group, not only of thought, but race and ethnicity. We didn't want this trip to be a girls' weekend," Figoli says.
The trip itinerary involved a tour of the border with Customs and Border Protection, a meeting with the mayor of El Paso, and a journey over the bridge linking El Paso to Juárez, among other activities.
At the time of this trip, the White House was threatening to close the border at El Paso. As they crossed the international bridge, the group of women saw immigrant families huddled together underneath it, caged in fencing.
"The timing of the trip was really stunning because it was all happening in real time," says Donner.
The U.S. is holding hundreds of asylum-seeking immigrants for days at a time in a pen under an El Paso bridge. Some migrants, including children, have been held there for up to four days and have been forced to sleep on gravel, @katelinthicum reports. https://t.co/ZIyQLKug3i pic.twitter.com/ZLa62hRqbt— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) March 30, 2019
Maria Garcia Berry, a longtime Denver lobbyist and a registered Republican, says the trip inspired her to take a stronger stance on immigration. Garcia Berry is an immigrant herself, having arrived in the U.S. from Cuba when she was a child after her parents sent her to Florida before eventually reuniting when they were able to leave themselves.
"I come back wanting to figure out how I can act productively. But I don't know whether the U.S. Congress will ever deal with this until we have a new president," says Garcia Berry, who notes that she didn't vote for Trump.
Even for some of the more liberal participants or those who track immigration issues closely, the trip still offered insight. "I'm an immigrant myself. It was enlightening to learn things I didn't understand," says Figoli, who's originally from Venezuela. "Mexico is not our enemy. Instead of building walls, I think more cooperation with Mexico will yield better results."
Another trip highlight for participants was meeting El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a Republican and strong critic of Trump's fear-mongering about criminal activity in El Paso and his general adversarial stance toward Mexico.
"Contrary to what you might hear or perceive, our city's relationship with Mexico has ushered in an era of economic growth and regional participation," Margo wrote in a February op-ed in USA Today just after the State of the Union address.
"It was incredible for us to see how non-partisan the issue is down there," says Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson, who also went on the trip. Bronson sees what's happening at the border as a humanitarian crisis and the people trying to cross into the U.S. as people simply seeking safety. "They're not criminals. They're human beings, absolutely fleeing for their lives."
The participants also visited Annunciation House, an organization that hosts immigrants in El Paso before they move to other parts of the U.S. While there, the group met a man from Honduras who had fled his home country with his family out of fear of violent retribution by a cartel.
"He said to me, 'I’m sorry I’m doing this to your country. It was this or dying,'" Figoli recalls.
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"They looked so terrified, like a deer in the headlights. Not knowing what's going to happen to them. Not knowing what they're going to be doing the next day," says Garcia Berry. Annunciation House recently helped move 55 asylum seekers to Denver.
Back in Colorado, Donner hopes to help immigrants going through the court system find legal counsel. Most immigrants going through deportation proceedings don't have legal representation, according to the American Immigration Council, which severely decreases their odds of petitioning to stay in the country.
Donner has also been coordinating with others interested in visiting the border, something that El Paso residents encouraged them to do, says Bronson.
"Their view is, if you really want to understand immigration, you come to the border," Bronson says.