U.S. Rep Jason Crow, right, speaks with Casa de Paz Executive Director Andrea Loya about the nonprofit’s work to support immigrants being released from a detention center in Aurora on April 3, 2023. (Lindsey Toomer/Colorado Newsline)
U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, a Centennial Democrat, on Monday visited an Aurora nonprofit that helps people detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement transition out of a privately owned detention center in his district.
The team at Casa de Paz helps immigrants released from a GEO Group detention facility in Aurora contracted by ICE. At a house in Aurora, the nonprofit offers food, clothes, telephone and computer access, personal hygiene products and transportation to Denver International Airport or bus stations at no cost to those leaving the facility. The house is also filled with bunk beds for those who need a short-term place to stay and has informational handouts available in a variety of languages on the services the nonprofit offers.
Andrea Loya, executive director of Casa de Paz, said most people find out about Casa through word of mouth or by seeing staff outside the Aurora facility. Casa has a van parked outside the detention facility 24/7 so that anyone who leaves at any time can see it and be aware of the help available to them, Loya said. Staff and volunteers with Casa de Paz also stand outside during the day to help people as they’re released.
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Sometimes ICE alerts Casa de Paz when it will release people. But Loya said that what facility leadership says they will do often differs from what they actually do. For example, she said ICE contacted one of Casa’s employees about a person who just had surgery being released at 8 a.m., but after the employee waited at the facility all day, that person wasn’t released until 4 p.m. This is part of why staff remains posted outside of the facility as often as possible.
The release of larger groups of detainees is unpredictable — some days, Casa de Paz will help just one or two people, while other days it can be as many as 40 or 50 people. Loya said Casa staff try to engage with every detainee leaving the facility, and they usually have some service to help each person they contact. The organization has served people from over 83 countries in the past 10 years. It has lately seen an influx of people coming from Turkey, Venezuela and Columbia.
Casa also hears a variety of concerns from those inside the facility over how people are treated while detained, Loya said. She said she’s visited two women in the facility over the last month who both expressed concern over verbal abuse from officers, and that there’s an overall lack of accountability within the facility.
“People did not realize that the U.S. would punish them for trying to seek a better life,” Loya said. “So a lot of people will complain about the conditions of GEO, but also a lot of people are shocked by the fact that isolation and being treated like a criminal for seeking asylum is the kind of the model that we have.”
Loya said some people who come to the detention center after spending time in prison have said they were treated better in prison. The average length of time people were held in the facility pre-pandemic was around nine months, with some being held for years, Loya said. Now, she said it can be anywhere from one to three months unless someone is fighting a harder case.
People did not realize that the U.S. would punish them for trying to seek a better life.
– Andrea Loya, executive director of Casa de Paz
Crow said he’s heard community reports about “abuses” and “substandard conditions” at the GEO Group facility since he first took office in 2019. While he’d ultimately like to see all private detention centers such as the ICE facility closed, in the meantime he’s using his role in Congress to try and hold them accountable, he said.
“I did what I thought any member of Congress should do and I conducted an inspection, but we had been told through reports that we were getting that if we pre-announced our inspection that they would clean it up and give us the dog and pony show and just show us what they wanted us to see,” Crow said during his visit to Casa.
Crow said he once showed up to the facility in a North Face puffer jacket and jeans requesting an inspection as the representative for the district in an attempt to avoid the “dog and pony show,” but he was turned away. He said it took three tries within a 30-day period before he could get into the facility, as facility staff blatantly told him there were things inside they did not want him to see.
“Eventually, we gained access to the facility and saw a lot of the things that we had been told about and warned about by the community, and that started my work and our office’s work to try to reform this facility and clean it up as best we could, absent ending private detention centers, which we’re trying to do,” Crow said.
This experience prompted Crow to introduce a bill that would have required immigration detention centers allow a member of Congress entry for inspection with 48-hour notice. The bill was later signed into law as part of Congress’s 2020 spending bill, but with immediate access provided to members of Congress and 24-hour notice required of congressional staff.
Loya said the nonprofit’s greatest funding source is individual donations, but it’s also trying to apply for more grant funding as the recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic shifted their donations.
“Our work is also very specific and very different, so a lot of different grants are also hard to get, because they are for the growth of a specific city or the growth of a specific kind of population,” Loya said. “So while I feel like in the end we do do that, it’s hard to say that we do that for Denver, because a lot of them move and they’re not staying in Denver.”
Before the pandemic hit, Crow said his team pushed to get people released from the immigration detention center on a personal bond or parole status, but the former director of the facility wouldn’t adopt the practice. Once COVID came into the picture, though, facilities like detention center released many people on personal bonds and “it worked out just fine,” Crow said.
“People went out into the community. They stayed with friends and family,” Crow said. “We didn’t see an increase in people not showing up to court appearances. It actually worked — we didn’t need to have an incarceration based … immigration system, so it just proved the point that we don’t need to be having these facilities, that there is a model where people can be in the community.”
The lack of transparency from such immigration detention facilities is another reason Crow said he wants to see them closed. In October 2022, a man from Nicaragua died while in custody at the facility, and few details have been released surrounding his death. Loya said Casa has interacted with some people who were around when the death happened, leading to more people experiencing trauma within the facility.
Crow said he’s working with U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, to shut down private detention centers nationwide, but until that happens he will keep working with organizations like Casa to support the people being detained.
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