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.”
- 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.
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.” 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. 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 https://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/
- 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.
 “Rehumanization.” Wikipedia. July 02, 2017. Accessed May 20, 2017.
 “Rehumanization.” Metta Center. August 28, 2014. Accessed May 25, 2017.
 “Rehumanization.” Metta Center. August 28, 2014. Accessed May 25, 2017.
 Gomberg-Muñoz, Ruth. Becoming Legal: Immigration Law and Mixed Status Families. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2017.