Empowering Immigrant Families in Colorado
Leticia, at left, speaks through interpreter Gabriela Flora at AFSC's May 2011 interfaith vigil outside the GEO immigrant detention center in Aurora, Colorado. Leticia holds a photo of her son, who had been detained in the center for six months.Photo: AFSC
By Jennifer Piper, AFSC Colorado Interfaith Organizing Director
Over a year ago I brought together a core group of 10 people to think about how to start a visitation and family support and empowerment program. Those ten people formed a group called Colorado AID. AFSC staff are key members of this group, continue to steer it and have dedicated a phone extension to the group’s hotline.
Friends or family of people being detained can call the hotline and leave a message. Within 24 hours a volunteer responds to their call. Colorado AID members listen, meet people where they are, and let the caller decide how we can walk with them.
Sometimes callers just need help finding a family member in the web of 5-10 county jails and one for-profit detention center that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracts with. Sometimes they need advice on how to prepare for deportation and where safe houses are in Mexico or other countries. Colorado AID members have picked up crucial documents from people’s apartments, visited people who have no others visitors, raised funds for phone cards, and connected people with qualified attorneys.
Most of all though, Colorado AID members clearly say: “We care about you and your family. We do not agree with our government’s policies and that’s why we’re here for you.” They create a space where no deportation is deserved or merited. It’s created room for trust and relationships to grow and for new leaders to emerge.
Over seven months ago, a mother named Leticia contacted us about her son, whom we’ll call S, who was being detained at the GEO privately-run immigrant detention center. Leticia felt isolated, depressed and angry. Her eldest son had been deported in 2009. Now her “baby” was being held. These three had always been very close and relied upon one another.
While her eldest son had found work in Mexico, she was still sending him money to help him get by. If her second son was also deported, what would she do? Would she stay here to support their family financially, even though she would be very alone? Or should she go to Mexico with him so the family could be together come what may?
The first lawyer Leticia had hired took their money and misrepresented S’s case. She was calling Colorado AID to get a recommendation for another lawyer (who corroborated the mess the first one had made). In the course of talking with her about the case, Leticia also became interested in having someone visit S, whom she hadn’t seen in months as she couldn’t visit.
Then she became active in his case, traveling to Boulder to track down hospital and police records, dealing with public officials and law enforcement in an assertive and competent manner despite the language barrier. Colorado AID members and AFSC staff prayed with Leticia, a deep Christian, and took time—something lawyers often don’t have—to be with her when she felt down.
As Colorado AID members continued to support Leticia in deciding what the next step was, she began to be interested in sharing her story and resisting a system she identified as unjust. She began attending AFSC monthly vigils; by the second one, she became a powerful speaker and advocate, not just for her son, but for all families. Leticia began inviting her friends to the vigils as well. At one vigil she shared that it gave her strength to see so many allies out in support of her community and that she no longer felt alone.
Colorado AID and AFSC put Leticia in contact with allies in Boulder, including Boulder VOICE. With support, Leticia organized pressure resulting in Boulder law enforcement signing a key document needed in S’s case. AFSC assisted Leticia in creating a petition to ask for bond in S’s case.
Leticia came to the AFSC June vigil and spoke about her experiences, asked for people to sign the petition in her son’s case and brought a letter in English that a friend had written on S’s behalf. She said she wanted people to know S better so they would know who they were signing for.
The next step in S’s application for a victim of crime (U) VISA is a psychological exam. The psychologist her lawyer referred her to charges $2,000, and so we are working with partners of ours to find someone who can do the psychological evaluation for a reasonable fee. Meanwhile, Leticia spoke at the July vigil, explaining to the press and activists how private prisons promote incarceration and how her family has been directly impacted.
(Leticia appears in this recent Univision report.)