By Christine Cole
For a little more than a year, Greg Mortimer has been working to help detained and recently released immigrants at the Geo Group’s ICE Processing Center in Aurora, Colorado. Every Sunday he and a group of eight to 10 Casa de Paz volunteers visit with up to five immigrants for the one hour they are allotted.
“Our goal is to have a community visiting with the people in detention,” he says, adding that they want to be a source of comfort for those who are detained, and on average, relationships are established over the course of six or seven months.
Through these visits, he has met numerous people who have profoundly impacted his life. After spending an hour visiting with and talking to asylum seekers, he says it’s hard not to care about them. “The shared experience has been transformative for our community,” he says.
One of many examples is their new friend Martin, who fled his home country of Cameroon, where the French-speaking majority are persecuting the English-speaking minority. English-speaking villages in Western Cameroon have been burned, innocent people have been kidnapped and killed, and people are fleeing for their lives. After speaking out against this violence, Martin subsequently feared for his life. He left his home and family and hid in the jungle for nearly three months before escaping Cameroon last fall. After a five-month journey through South and Central America, in February 2018 he crossed the border in San Diego. He surrendered to immigration agents and declared himself an asylum seeker; then he was imprisoned in Aurora, where he met Mortimer and other Casa de Paz volunteers.
The group became so attached to Martin that they recently hired an attorney to help him. (They have set up a Go Fund Me account to help with the ongoing legal fees.) Luckily, Martin has been released from the detention center, but the threat of deportation remains very high. And if Martin is deported, he would likely be jailed, if not killed.
When Martin was released on ICE parole in late September while awaiting the outcome of his case, several Casa volunteers took him out for dinner, along with a couple of other recently released asylum seekers. “It was their first trip to a restaurant in the U.S. after having been in detention for almost seven months,” he says. “It was so much fun to be able to share a meal with these guys after visiting them in the detention center for so long.”
Of course, there are many others who’ve made an impact on Mortimer, and because of these experiences and interactions, there’s a question that’s been on his mind a lot over the past year: How do we get as many people as possible to know what’s going on inside these detention centers?
“If enough people know about these [detention centers], maybe that can lead to change,” he says. “I tell people, ‘Come with me for one hour. It will change you. It’s not a political story or statistic … these are real people.’”
There are more than 200 immigrant prisons and jails across the U.S., and the Aurora facility alone has the capacity to hold 1,500 people.
“It’s isolating and dehumanizing,” says Mortimer, explaining that visitors are led through several locked doors, and then they are locked in a long hallway, where they talk to detainees on a phone, sitting behind a glass window.
It was early 2017 when Mortimer, an IT director for a Colorado public school district, was introduced to the idea of working with immigrants. He invited Sarah Jackson, founder of Casa de Paz, to speak at his church about the work she was doing related to the immigration crisis.
Casa de Paz is a non-profit that began in 2012 by offering lodging and meals to people affected by immigrant detention in a small, one-bedroom apartment across the street from the Aurora detention facility. They host individuals who have been just been released and have no support or family in the Denver area. They also welcome families of those detained who needed a place to stay while visiting the detention center. Over the years, Casa de Paz has expanded services to include visits and emotional support to those inside the detention center, and access to phones, WiFi, computers, and transportation to those who are released. Last year, they moved into a larger house to accommodate more people. So far, they’ve hosted over 1,400 immigrants from over 20 different countries.
“This has changed my life in ways I can’t describe,” says Mortimer. “How can we tell the whole world what’s going on so we can end this injustice?”
For those who remain detained and who are isolated, Mortimer has a message: “Please hang in there. We know you are there. We love you, and we’re praying for you. We’re your advocates, even if we can’t see all of you know. But we care about you.”