Immigrant hot potato one reason for ongoing protests at Aurora detention center

Since May, an interfaith group has staged a vigil the first Monday of each month at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility, 11901 East 30th Avenue -- and they'll be there again tonight at 6 p.m.

Among the many reasons for this ongoing protest, according to Jennifer Piper, interfaith organizing director for the American Friends Service Committee: "Immigrants in detention already have reduced rights of due process, and when they're moved, which happens very frequently, you're often reducing them even further."

As Piper notes, "It's common to move people from one center to another -- and sometimes to centers in other states. And this is really problematic not just from the standpoint of having access to family support.

"The immigration system isn't a part of the regular criminal justice system," she continues. "You don't get a public defender. You either defend yourself or you have to pay for an attorney -- something we think is very unfair. And when someone pays for counsel and then is moved, the counsel often can't afford to travel to other states -- and that kind of thing happens a lot in Colorado.

"The center in Aurora is privately owned [by GEO], and there are also four county jails in Colorado where detention of immigrants happens; those jails are reimbursed by the federal government. So somebody who's picked up in Park County might be transferred to Aurora, and then transferred again to the county jail in El Paso. And there have been cases where people had a court date at the Aurora facility and weren't transferred in time for their court date -- and there was no one there to explain why."

The length of time people are detained for immigration-related matters is also an issue for Piper.

"In the past, if someone showed up trying to claim asylee status in our country, they'd be put in the custody of another organization -- often a church organization. But now, the government has made it a practice to detain asylees until their court hearing comes up -- meaning they can be in a prison for a year or more.

"If people are coming here claiming asylee status, they've often suffered a lot of indiscriminate detention or abuse, and their first contact with the United States is to be thrown into what's essentially a jail cell while the process is being reviewed by the court. And because the process is different from the regular criminal-law system, there's not the same kind of firm time line about how long people can be held or how long their cases should take."

As a result, the costs can add up quickly.

"Taxpayers pay about $105 per detainee per day to be held at the GEO private facility," Piper says. "That's incredibly high when you think that in a regular prison, the cost is about $65 a day." And GEO is currently in the midst of expansion that will increase the number of beds from 400 to approximately 1,500. If all of those spaces are devoted to immigrant-related matters, that'll mean almost quadruple the capacity -- and potentially quadruple the profits for GEO.

There are less expensive alternatives, Piper continues.

"People could be released to churches or nonprofit organizations, which may cost taxpayers nothing, or they could use ankle bracelets, which cost about $12 a day. And the appearance rate at court dates for people in these circumstances is over 90 percent. People do show up for their court dates because there's the possibility that they'll be able to regularize their status or become documented in the process."

And that's not to mention the issues of morality that drive operations like the AFSC.

"Clergy and law people don't believe it's consistent with our faith values to detain people with no criminal history, or people who may have a criminal history but have already served their sentence. People of faith are concerned with the idea of separating people from their families and often depriving their families of their main breadwinner when the person's only infraction is immigration-related and not criminal."

As such, the group advocates immigration reform and has reached out to various lawmakers in an attempt to get them to show up at events like tonight's vigil -- thus far to little effect. Jared Polis originally committed to showing up in September, but he had to cancel at the last minute, although he sent along some comments to be read at the gathering. An invitation has also gone out to Ed Perlmutter, who represents the district in which the detention center is located. But Piper says his office hasn't responded to date.

In contrast, Pastor Ruben Reyes and members of El Shaddai Church of Christ are expected to be on hand tonight -- and they won't be alone. "We usually get between fifty and a hundred people," Piper says, "and tonight, we'll be focusing both on testimony from folks who've had family members detained and also on the recent Human Rights Watch report about how people are moved around in detention."

She adds, "It's really urgent for folks that our communities aren't ripped apart by the enforcement of bad laws."

Read the HRW report here, and get more information about the event below:

December 7th, 2009 6:00pm

American Friends Service Committee & Colorado Faith Communities Call for Just and Humane Immigration Reform and an end to Detention

WHEN: Monday, December 7th, 6:00 p.m.

WHERE: GEO Detention Center 30th Avenue and Peoria Street Aurora, CO 80010

WHAT: Highlights from the Human Rights Watch report on Immigrant Detention: "Locked Up Far Away -- The Transfer of Immigrants to Remote Detention Centers in the United States"

Lighting of candles in solidarity with those detained.

Personal Reflections and prayer on the detention of our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, neighbors and friends.

Singing in Spanish and English of "Silent Night."

WHY: In this season of holidays and family, we come together as one human family and as people of faith to pray and to speak out. In Colorado alone over 400 people are held in indefinite and capricious detention for working and providing for their families. Our broken system breaks these families apart. This same system routinely transfers people to detention centers far away from both family and legal support, further diminishing due process in a a system with minimal protections. For these reasons, we pray for an end to detention and for immigration laws which respect human dignity.

WHO: Pastor Ruben Reyes and members of El Shaddai Church of Christ Members of the Colorado faith community, Coloradans for Immigrant Rights and the American Friends Service Committee

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