• Mary MacCarthy

Caring for immigrants released from ICE custody, in the age of Covid-19

Casa de Paz is a Denver nonprofit that offers critical services to immigrants who've been detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). First and foremost, it offers them a place to stay immediately upon their release. Since its founding in 2012, it has hosted over 3,000 immigrants from 74 countries.

Sarah says Casa de Paz's strength lies in the dedication of its volunteer community

Casa de Paz is the brainchild of Sarah Jackson - a Denver woman who works in the software industry. A church trip to the U.S.-Mexico border inspired her to take action to help undocumented immigrants - initially by opening her own home to individuals who'd just been released from the ICE detention center in the Denver suburbs.

Sadly but not unexpectedly, Covid-19 is hitting ICE detention centers hard - with a growing number of infections among immigrant detainees and staff. I reached out to Sarah to find out how the pandemic is affecting Casa de Paz's work. She explained that, thanks to the dedication of volunteers, the nonprofit has been able to continue hosting guests - and is rapidly adapting its operations to the Covid-19 era.

HOW IS THE CASA DE PAZ GETTING BY? We’re seeing things we’ve never seen before. Early on, there were days when 8-10 immigrants were released at once - that was amid the initial fears of Covid-19 outbreaks in the detention centers. When there were group releases like that, we would let our volunteers know that we had more people than usual to host. Within an hour, all of our volunteer slots would be full.

We literally have an abundance of volunteers. It’s been an honor to watch our volunteer community stay focused on what we’re supposed to be doing. As an organization, we are also very lucky to be surviving financially at a time when many nonprofits are struggling. Since we have no employees, we have much less overhead than most organizations.

Right now, we welcome 1-2 released immigrants per day. All of our guests come from the only ICE detention center in Colorado, which is in Aurora [a suburb to the east of Denver].

Sometimes, we get a heads-up that an immigrant is going to be released. A guard might call us, or a lawyer, or a family member of the immigrant. But regardless, we have a volunteer outside the detention center every day, ready to offer our services.

When immigrants are released, some of them - but not many - have been tested for Covid-19. In prison populations, the virus is running rampant. So we assume that anyone leaving the detention center has been exposed.

Victor is one of the 3,000+ immigrants who has stayed at Casa de Paz

Often, it seems that the detention center hasn't communicated proper safety measures for Covid-19 - so we bring the immigrants up to speed on that, in terms of wearing masks and sanitizing.

For the immigrants, it must be unnerving when they are released. The volunteer who is there to meet them can’t shake hands or give them a hug, and is wearing a mask and gloves. We’ve started having our volunteers pin a smiling photo of themselves on their shirt or jacket, so the immigrant can see what the volunteer actually looks likes with a friendly face - just like some doctors and nurses have started doing.

Obviously, no one would ever wish for a worldwide pandemic. But Covid-19 has provided opportunities for us to reevaluate what we were doing before - and even to ask, what do we dream about doing next?

The main change we're implementing is moving towards a model called “Las Casitas.” Since we started eight years ago, we’ve had one central home where we host our guests. But now, we’re starting to understand that - with no vaccine and insufficient testing for Covid-19 - a single house with many guests isn’t the safest environment. It creates a risk of infection and spread of the virus. Which brings us to Las Casitas. The idea is that volunteers will open their own homes, offering the guests an individual room, or in some cases a basement with its own entrance, etc. We'll have remote, video-based training for Casita hosts. And we'll provide them with a welcome kit that includes masks, gloves, disinfectant, and other items to keep everyone safe - and to ensure that the guests feel welcome.

Planning how the Casitas will work is really an opportunity, for us at Casa de Paz, to think through ways of doing hospitality differently - and honestly, better than what we’ve been doing until now. What we’ve been doing so far is great. We’ll often have five or even up to seven or eight guests at once, along with quite a few volunteers. But that many people in a home can sometimes be overwhelming. With the Casitas, it will be different. It can be more personalized to what each guest might want or need.

We will continue to keep the main house open, but we will operate it at a smaller capacity in terms of the number of guests there. And it will continue to serve as a base camp for us as an organization. I used to live at the house, and we have one volunteer - Oliver - who lives there now as a full-time host. Oliver and I have been lucky enough to experience just how rich your life becomes, living at the Casa de Paz. Now, the Casitas will be a way for others to experience that richness, by opening their homes to immigrants.

Sarah's forthcoming book recounts how her questioning of "what it means to be an American, and to be Christian" led her to create Casa de Paz

Finally, it's important to say that our response to the pandemic is more than just adapting how we operate. We are also actively calling on ICE and local officials to do mass releases of immigrants in custody.

We've just posted a toolkit on this, part of a national campaign called “Free them all."

There’s no good reason to keep immigrants in detention right now - during a public health crisis! But of course, as someone who's been working on this issue for years, I can tell you why they aren't releasing immigrants. It's because these detention centers are for-profit prisons.

Right now, due to the virus, ICE detention centers are jeopardizing the lives both of the detained immigrants and of all the people who work with them - including guards, attorneys, and immigration judges. Every time there's a Covid-19 outbreak, it’s putting a huge number of lives at risk - anyone inside the detention center, then all the healthcare workers and hospitals who have to treat those patients.

* I'm looking forward to reading Sarah's book, which will be released in July - this link will take you to one of the multiple vendors offering it for pre-order now: The House That Love Built, Why I Opened My Door to Immigrants and How We Found Hope Beyond a Broken System, published by Zondervan.

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