Casa de Paz and the Rehumanization of Immigrants By: Tess Waldrop

Note to the reader: Over the past 10 weeks, as part of a Qualitative Research Methods course at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School for International Studies Graduate Program, I had the honor of being part of a research team investigating the treatment of immigrants both during their stay at the US Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) GEO Processing Detention Center in Aurora, Colorado as well as after their release. Partnering with local organization and non profit lead by Sarah Jackson, Casa de Paz, we were able to interview former detainees of the GEO center as well as the immigration lawyers and volunteers who partner with Casa de Paz to fight for the justice and human rights of immigrants in the United States. Casa de Paz, located only 2 miles from the detention center in Aurora, does a variety of things, including helping to reunite families separated during their journey, supplying former detainees with fresh clothes and warm meals upon their release, and connecting them with resources (classes, jobs, hosts) which assist them with acclimating to their new home in United States, whether in Colorado or beyond. Through this research, our group was looking to answer the following question:

How does detention reinforce the idea of the ‘the criminal alien’ and contribute to the dehumanization of immigrants and how do individual stories and efforts from Casa de Paz work to dismantle these false narratives in order to create context for a broader understanding of justice.


The following narrative summarizes my biggest takeaways from this life-changing research process.



I am greeted warmly on a sunny Saturday afternoon by a woman who welcomes me into her home, and escorts me to the back porch, where I find 3 men sitting in rocking chairs, drinking iced tea while laughing and smiling, clearly enjoying each others company. I can tell right away that these people are not merely friends, but rather family – the closeness and ease with which they interact is indicative of their relationship. I am there to interview two young men, a nephew and uncle from West Africa, both former detainees at the GEO immigrant processing center in Aurora. We speak in French, as they do not speak English. Our hosts, a local couple who volunteered to take in the two men upon their release from detention, are deemed “Mommy” and “Poppy” by the two young men and do not speak a word of French, yet throughout our 3 hour conversation, never seem to skip a beat. I ask the men their story and they willingly share.


They begin to tell me of their long and arduous journey which has brought them to where they are today and I listen intently. They left West Africa because of famine, suffering, and religious violence, in order to make money to send to their families for hope of a better life – To buy food for their families and to send their children to school, a luxury which they were not afforded when they were young. They proudly show me pictures of their families, beaming the whole time. I notice a distinct shimmer in their eyes while they do so. One of them has 3 children and a wife. He has yet to meet his youngest child in person, a fact that clearly pulls on his heart strings. But this does not deter them.


They set out for Brazil 3 years earlier, where they found no work. So it was on to Peru, then Ecuador and Colombia, where they boarded a boat on its way to Panama, a journey which lasted 3 days, with no food, water, or facilities. This boat capsized and they watched, unable to help, as 21 people drowned. They tell me of their journey through the rainforest, showing me pictures of friends in their group who died after being bitten by poisonous snakes or drinking river water which gave them chronic diarrhea. When they finally crossed the border in California, one of them ironically says with a chortle, “Welcome to America!’ Handcuffs.” They were detained for 4 months in Aurora, where they lost weight due to lack of nutritious food, suffered severe headaches brought on by stress and lack of sleep because of the deliberate use of the icebox tactic, were forced to work for $1/day in the kitchen, and were never allowed the opportunity to go outside and breathe fresh air. Upon their release, they were directed to Casa de Paz and from there, found a family who was willing and able to help them. Of course, their struggles did not end upon their release. They were even “mistakenly” labeled as sex offenders on their official papers, a label which was found to be extremely difficult to expunge, despite the fact that is was 100% untrue. Their poor treatment by immigration officers continues today. They have every right to be in the U.S. based on the eligibility guidelines for asylum seekers and one of them has won his asylum case, at which point he was provided with all of the proper documentation and permits to reside and work legally within the country. Despite this, they inform me that since Trump became president and there has been an increase in unwarranted ICE raids, both avoid leaving their house except to go to work or to visit Mommy and Poppy, for fear that they could be deported, no longer able to feed their families or send them to school. For fear their chance of bringing their families to a safer place will disappear.


Yet despite all of these hardships, they are able to see the light. One of them tells me how much he loves to dance, it makes him forget his troubles. They both love to play soccer and have a healthy appetite for cake and smoked chicken. They look fondly at their hosts, who don’t know exactly what we are saying, but are able to infer. One of the young men looks to me after reliving their nearly unfathomable story. He leans over, placing his hand on Poppy’s shoulder, his eyes swelling with tears and he says to me, “Imagine arriving here with nothing, knowing no one, having no belongings, not even a pair of shoes, and not speaking English. This man gave me everything, even though he did not even know my name. He clothed me, kept me warm, helped me find a job, gave me a bed in his own home. We do not speak the same language and we are not from the same place – mais dans nos coeurs, nous sommes les memes. But in our hearts we are the same. All of us, we have the same heart.” This is rehumanization as we see it.


At first glance, it may seem as though the term “rehumanization” means “to make human again.” And if you google the definition of it, this might in fact be the first one to appear. However, upon further examination, the term “rehumanization” means so much more, especially when you are faced with the truth about the deliberate use of dehumanizing tactics in the Aurora GEO detention center against fellow humans in the very city we call home. Tactics used in order to demean, separate, and humiliate people in a land we claim to welcome those “yearning to breathe free.” Rehumanization when you dig a bit deeper, is defined as:

  • From Wikipedia: “The process by which one reverses the damage done by dehumanization. That is, in individuals or groups, the process of rehabilitating one’s way of perceiving the other(s) in question in one’s mind and in consequent behavior.”[1]
  • Or, from the Metta Center for Nonviolence: “The nonviolent process of rekindling the sense of empathy” even while resisting an unjust agenda, only possible through focusing on similarities and overcoming stereotypes.[2]

In essence, rehumanization is recognizing humanity. Throughout our research process, this recognition of humanity emerged as a very clear theme, one that typically had always been

recognized by the immigrant, but not so easily recognized by the common American.


Upon my first observation at Casa de Paz, I had the pleasure of transporting a young man recently released from the GEO detention center from Guatemala to the Greyhound bus station. While this was a very brief interaction and I speak essentially no Spanish and him essentially no English, we were able to find more commonality in those 30 minutes than I often find with someone I have known for months. Over the course of the ride, through the use of a lot of hand gestures, google translate, and very broken Spanish and English, we talked about our favorite sports, he inquired where we had travelled to – had we ever been close to Guatemala? We discovered each other’s ages, and we became friends on Facebook, where he showed us pictures of his family. As he boarded his bus to his next destination in the United States, we shook his hand, and as we did so, he looked to us and stated with a smile “Muchos amigos at Casa de Paz.” To some, this conversation may seem insignificant, however it became clear it meant so much more than just talking about Facebook and what sports we liked to play. This willingness to relate is something that many citizens of the US refuse to do, effectively creating a divide which often leads to completely unfounded hatred of the other.


While interviewing the people who participated in this research, we asked almost everyone what message they would like to relay to the general American public. One Crimmigration lawyer stated, while admitting this to be a very hard question to answer: “Immigrants are people and as people they are fallible. They make mistakes, they do things they shouldn’t do, that’s exactly like everyone else… But if that is the criteria on who does and doesn’t get to live in the US, we should have a really close examination of ourselves…  It reflects a vision of us as people who we actually have never been, because we are humans. We make mistakes. The reality is that humans aren’t perfect.” The US system holds immigrants accountable to standards which no normal human can uphold, because as humans, we are not perfect. From the moment an immigrant crosses that border, the system sets them up to fail.


This lawyer was not alone. Many of the volunteers, staff, and former detainees stressed

the importance of humanity in our conversations with them, of the commonality between all of us – that we are all human. As these examples and literature can attest to, if we fall into the dominant discourse and continue to see each other as the other, we will only continue to reinforce a very unjust agenda. As a passionate Casa de Paz volunteer poignantly stated, “It’s simple to me – you remove the politics, remove the religion. Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, what have you. You talk to this fellow human being and relate to them as a father, a brother, a grandfather, a man… Nothing should ever stand in the way of you helping another human.”


While researching rehumanization, I came across a wealth of literature on the importance of recognizing humanity in the context of gross human rights violations, with specific focus on its use in the wake of apartheid in South Africa. While neuroscience offers an in depth study of the process of rehumanization, it is not something which can be done in a lab. Rehumanization is what is done in the most mundane of places, which requires the individuals, as the definition says, to “focus on similarities and overcome stereotypes.”[3] This is the challenge for us – Citizens of the United States of America. It is not a burden to be placed on the immigrant, who, as scholar Gomberg-Munoz fairly suggests, are often made to feel they have to earn the right to be here.[4] Being allowed to live freely and justly and recognized as an equal should not be a rarity. This is what all humans deserve and yet immigrants in the US are consistently denied it. I challenge you and all of us in the United States to recognize humanity and act as a beacon of hope rather than a cross to bear. Send us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free and welcome them! As equals, as peers, as colleagues, as humans.


At Casa de Paz, Sarah Jackson and her various volunteers make it their job to remind people their lives still have dignity even when it has been stripped from them in detention. For example, every year, Casa de Paz makes Valentine’s day cards for people in detention. While this is a small task, the message it sends to the immigrants at GEO represents so much more. As Sarah Jackson stated in a recent interview, “This is about reminding people that they matter, that they are human beings and that their lives should be dignified. And for that reason, Valentine’s Day is now important to me.”


What can you do?

  • Volunteer with Casa de Paz! This can be done in a variety of ways:
    • Bring a meal for guests
    • Provide transportation for guests (rides to the airport or bus station)
    • Visit someone being detained
    • Give household goods (paper towels, blankets, pillows, cleaning supplies, toiletries)
    • Donate moneyto pay for rent
    • Join Volleyball Internacional! Started by Sarah a couple years back – fees fund Casa de Paz.
  • Stay educated rather than following dominant discourse and help to break the cycle of institutionalized racism. What does the law say? Where are the discrepancies. Visit
  • Attend a vigil at the Aurora GEO ICE processing center, located near the Peoria Light Rail station. Held 4 times per year and organized by the American Friends Service Committee and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition
  • Schedule a Know Your Rights training, organized by the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.
  • Volunteer with the Colorado Rapid Response Network, anetwork of community groups and individuals trained to track, verify, and document abuses, and respond to ICE raids in immigrant communities.
  • Follow Coloradans for Immigrant Rights and the American Friends Service Committee
  • Attend a court case.
  • Get to know an immigrant. As one lawyer interviewed said, getting to know an immigrant “is progress, yet it is certainly not enough. People think that the immigrant they know is the exception to the rule,’ They’ll say, “Oh but the guy I know is a good guy, he’s a hard worker,” We need those people to realize that that particular immigrant is not the exception to the rule, that good immigrants are easy to find.” Recognize that the immigrant you know is not the exception to the rule.
  • Challenge yourself to leave your safe space, be uncomfortable, and recognize your positionality.
  • See each other for what we are – equals.

[1] “Rehumanization.” Wikipedia. July 02, 2017. Accessed May 20, 2017.

[2] “Rehumanization.” Metta Center. August 28, 2014. Accessed May 25, 2017.

[3] “Rehumanization.” Metta Center. August 28, 2014. Accessed May 25, 2017.

[4] Gomberg-Muñoz, Ruth. Becoming Legal: Immigration Law and Mixed Status Families. New York: Oxford

University Press, 2017.



Social Justice Solidarity at the Latin America Center

Black-Brown picture LAC

By: Adrian Nava

During the 2015-2016 school year, the Latin America Center at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies organized a Social Justice Solidarity Series, where topics and issues that impact Latinxs were related and talked about in unity with issues that impact other social groups, including folks in different generations, Black students, and students at different campuses in the Denver area.

These conversations are important to me because people like me are oftentimes not represented or represented poorly on campus. In the last three years I’ve dealt with experiences and interactions on this campus that would make for interesting and astonishing stories, especially for people who are not privy to the racism, homophobia and other types of discrimination that happen on DU’s campus. The Social Justice Solidarity Series not only included voices of different students but expanded perspectives and included voices of people from different backgrounds, identities and experiences. By attending these events, I was able to sit in a room where I could hear about what mattered to students now, what was important 10 years ago, and what Latinxs in Denver were fighting for 50 years ago. The series offered me a look into Latinx history and a space to offer steps on moving forward.

By hosting conversations of this nature, the Latin America Center at Korbel is confirming its commitment to students and extending support to underrepresented groups on DU’s campus. When I first walked the sidewalks of DU, I felt a great sense of discomfort. I’d walk through the dining halls with caution and a sense of unworthiness, taking only minimal food and eating as fast as I could. Three years later I no longer feel unworthy, but I am jaded and ambivalent most days on campus. I’ve changed my relationship between myself and school grounds: I have a 30 minute commute, assuring that I live far enough away that I can be in a completely different community when school environment is overwhelming. I stacked courses on Mondays and Wednesdays, and only step foot on DU’s red-brick-paved sidewalks two days a week. It has been events like the Social Justice Solidarity Series that bring me back and offer me acknowledgement and ease. There’s a tiny and impactful feeling of power that comes with going to the Latin America Center’s events, knowing that internal shifts are starting to take place and that there are offices and people on campus that care.

In March, the Latin America Center held a Black – Brown Solidarity discussion, where students created a list of demands that addressed racial inequity on campus. Weeks later a group of Black students organized a die-in at the Anderson Academic Commons. As a student of color, events like the solidarity series reaffirm my identity, experience, and allow me to feel some relief on DU’s campus. The Latin America Center will continue to hold these events, and hopefully students like myself will begin to feel included and supported on DU’s campus.

Adrian Nava is a senior at the University of Denver and Research Assistant at the Latin America Center. He can be reached at

By: Darren Harvey

I had the privilege of being a part of the Social Justice Solidarity Series, hosted by the Latin America Center at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, this 2015-2016 academic year. As a student of color, attending the University of Denver (DU), it is not uncommon to feel very isolated in my program, in my classes, and in my overall experiences at the institution. As a Black graduate student, I can definitely describe my initial experience as one of isolation. When I first matriculated at the University of Denver, away from family and friends and my usual support systems, I was unprepared for the climate at DU. Attending an institution that is seemingly known for its majority white and affluent student body is an interesting dynamic for a student that is first generation US-born as well as first generation college-bound. I did not feel comfortable in my classes; I did not feel comfortable walking across campus; and I definitely did not feel comfortable studying in the library. Why? Why wouldn’t I feel comfortable being a student in student spaces? It’s one thing to have excellent academic programs and departments as well as having a campus that is beautiful and scenic. It’s totally different to have these features AND have an inclusive and diverse campus climate.

This is not to say that all students of color face this same overwhelming feeling of isolation. There are many that have no issue with DU’s climate and their growth at this institution is worthy of taking note. However, my experience is not unique. There are many that echo my sentiments and even more that have had experiences of dehumanization that have left them with an unsettling sense of frustration. It is tough enough to be a student at DU; add issues of race, gender, or sexual orientation into the mix, and you have one hell of a fight to graduation.

I have always seen commonalities in the struggles of disadvantage people, whether they identify as poor, as different sexual orientations or as different races. Often times, when combating social justice issues there is a crucial element left out – the identification of our commonalities. To prevent the oppressed from joining in solidarity, those who oppress love to provoke division amongst us and our leaders. This year’s Social Justice Solidarity Series took action. These events initiated an important step in facilitating much needed conversations amongst communities and student leaders at DU. We were able to start constructing what Solidarity means and what that will look like. We were able to create spaces of communion for students that all have the shared experiences of isolation attending this university. These events are a much needed piece in DU’s growth to a more inclusive institution and to building solidarity among oppressed groups, and I look forward to being a part of future endeavors.

Darren Harvey is a graduate student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and Research Assistant at the Latin America Center. He can be reached at

How Immigration Policies Create Smugglers

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This blog was originally published on the Allegra Laboratory website. Find the original post here.

By: Rebecca Galemba

In the spring of 2007, when I was driving with Ramón (all names have been changed), a Mexican man who lives along an unmonitored road that crosses the Mexico-Guatemala border, we passed one of the newer, two-story homes. I commented that the house had its outdoor lights on all day. Ramón shrugged. “He won’t care. He’s rich”, he said. “He doesn’t care about the lights”. Ramón told me that the owner – Gerardo – used to be a pollero, or a human smuggler, who brought many people to the United States. But he stopped, according to Ramón, when “things became more complicated” and Mexico intensified immigration surveillance in the mid-2000s.

Other border residents also whispered that Gerardo used to be a pollero or coyote, another term used to refer to migrant smugglers. The whispers were usually followed by an assertion that he was no longer a smuggler. Now he just raised cattle. Prior to the late 1990s and early 2000s, many border residents provided Central Americans with rides into Mexico with little fanfare.

Mexico’s intensification of border policing and concerted securitisation of migration can be traced to the US-backed Plan Sur in 2001 to support US security concerns. The escalation of the drug war in Mexico in 2006, and Mexico’s implementation of the Southern Border Plan in 2014 in response to Washington’s outcries of a “surge” on the border in 2014, further intensified migrant policing.

Mexico has concentrated border surveillance on select, modernised border points of entry, as well as on ad hoc highway roadblocks to establish ‘belts of control’. However, migrant desperation, continued demand for cheap labour in the United States, and widespread official corruption and impunity has meant that heightened securitisation has not deterred migration. Instead, migrant smuggling at the Mexico-Guatemala border has shifted from more informal networks and local guides to higher-priced smugglers and criminal groups as human rights abuses against migrants increase.

How Gerardo became a smuggler

The first border residents, whether from the Mexican or Guatemalan side, who went to the United States in the 1990s all went with Gerardo. Miguel, a Guatemalan border resident, joined other young men from the Mexican side of the border. “We all went to the United States with Gerardo before he was a coyote”, Miguel said. They went to work on pine tree plantations in Alabama. Since Gerardo was the first to work at the plantation, he found work for others. At first each man used his own money to travel to the northern border, where they hired coyotes to help them cross the US-Mexico border.

Gerardo did not charge any of them and also worked on the plantation. Subsequently, Gerardo recruited his friends more formally under work visas through his employer in Alabama. The ironic twist was that the visas were for Guatemalans, and so the Mexicans purchased false Guatemalan papers in La Libertad or Guatemala City. Border residents believed that work visas were easier to acquire in Guatemala than in Mexico, after the end of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war in 1996. Due to fewer applicants, visas were also less competitive in Guatemala. When the visa process expired, people were still able to go north without documents, as the cross-border migration and work networks were by this point established. Later, Gerardo brought the same people from the same places to the same location. This time he charged, making him a coyote.

Yet the stories surrounding Gerardo’s role shift depending on the point in time and the interlocutor. “No, he wasn’t acoyote…they are from bigger cities”, one Mexican border resident said. “Some people say he is, but he was acontratista [contractor], since his boss in the US would send him here to bring others … they went with visas, which they bought in Guatemala”. Others mentioned Gerardo’s role as a labor contractor and coyote as one and the same; the only thing that changed was how he could bring people to the employer in the US. In other words, Gerardo was converted from a fellow migrant to a labour broker to a smuggler depending on changes in US immigration and visa processes, all the while continuing to provide his Alabama employer with Mexican and Guatemalan workers.

Some residents wonder how Gerardo made so much money, but others see him as someone who helped others regardless of whether they called him a fellow migrant, smuggler, or contractor. “He is the one who helped many people from here go to the US”, Gerardo’s cousin noted. “He helped the majority from this region. Since he was one of the first to go, he helped others to go with visas and then others as a coyote. But then he stopped … when it got more dangerous”.

When smuggling becomes a profession

As Mexico enhanced immigration surveillance and criminalised smuggling, and drug cartels expanded into human smuggling and preying on migrants, smaller-scale smugglers like Gerardo left the business. It became more dangerous to crossing through Mexico and more expensive to evade corrupt officials, checkpoints, and criminals. Locals preferred to go with local border guides and brokers since they trusted people with whom they shared social and kinship connections.

In recent years, border residents have had to search for smugglers in larger cities, those who may specialise in, or have deeper connections to, smuggling networks. Smugglers are increasingly necessary to helping locals navigate Mexico’s proliferation of immigration checkpoints.

Eduardo, a Mexican border resident, referred to how migrant smuggling transformed from a networking service to a more lucrative and risky business that locals increasingly associate with drug trafficking regardless of actual overlaps. He mentioned that Gerardo probably never made much money bringing people. Eduardo also used to “deliver” migrants to smugglers locally and occasionally to the northern border as a teenager. But, he told me, “[in those days] it was very little and it was different…easy…I barely made anything”.

Eduardo confided suspicions about Gerardo and his earnings that led locals to collapse migrant and drug smuggling together. Gerardo had a small horse track on his property in a region where horse races are often associated with drug exchanges. “That is where they do exchanges … it is all narcos”, said Eduardo. Eduardo suspected Gerardo was collaborating with people working in drugs and pollos”. But, he said, “do not tell people where you heard that”.

Prior to Mexico’s intensification of migrant surveillance, smuggling migrants may have still been illegal, but it was a mundane, relatively benign aspect of border life.

Previously an activity that most residents engaged in to some degree, they have been pushed out of migrant smuggling by its increasing risk, price, and criminalisation under Mexico’s intensification of border policing since signing Plan Sur in 2001, and most recently, under the 2014 Southern Border Plan. In turn, the increasing criminality and corruption surrounding migration make border residents not only avoid it, but also fearful to even talk about it. Once a fact of border life, they no longer spoke about migrant smuggling, or talked about it as something they did in the past, or spoke about it quietly.

Just like the drug traffickers they knew passed through their community, they knew migrant smugglers used this route, but did not see or hear anything. As one border resident told me, “if drugs come through here, we don’t realise. They don’t bother us”.

At this particular juncture, border talk around human and drug smuggling alternates between silence and rumour as the landscape shifts. Rumour can help people living in a constant state of fear navigate uncertainty while it also serves to govern the movements of the vulnerable. At the Mexico-Guatemala border, alternating silences and rumours protect local residents while they also enhance the illicit aura around drugs and migration and perpetuate silence and impunity.

As Gerardo’s narrative demonstrates, the profile of the human smuggler is shaped by fluctuations in migration policy and policing. Nicholas de Genova critically examines immigrant illegality by pointing to how changing laws, rather than migrant and smuggler actions, produced “the legal production of migrant illegality”. By extension, to understand the evolution and fear of the criminal smuggler, we must become attune to the criminalisation of human mobility. The criminalisation and uneven policing of boundaries has shaped and structured the strategies of those seeking to evade them, as well as created and altered the constellations of actors who serve as brokers at the disjunctures between borders, their incomplete enforcement, and human mobility.

Rebecca Galemba  (PhD Brown University), is an anthropologist and has been a Lecturer at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies since 2012. Learn more about the Latin America Center.