You know how they say to always read the fine print? Well, I did. And it changed my life. In 2010, I was working at a church as the senior pastor’s assistant. My boss was invited to participate in an immersion trip to Mexico to learn about immigration, but wasn’t available to attend. After reading the fine print, the words All expenses paid trip to Mexico jumped out, and I eagerly offered to go. It sounded like a vacation! I pictured myself on the beach having a grand old time. I went into it lightly, but the things I learned at the border and the people I met turned my world upside down.
I had no idea that people seeking asylum would come to our country and be locked in a detention center, even when doing it the “legal” way. I had no idea that an immigrant who was brought here as a child could be deported without committing any crime. I had no idea that even if you were married to a US citizen and had US citizen children, you could still be deported without committing any crime. You could be deported just for being undocumented in this country.
One man I met was named Abel. His parents brought him to the US as a small child, through no choice of his own. He grew up here, graduated high school, married a US citizen, had three US citizen children and paid taxes from his job. One day, he was driving to school to pick up his children, and the police pulled him over for driving too slow in a school zone. They found out he was undocumented, arrested him, and, after spending one year in detention fighting his case, they eventually deported him to Mexico, a place he had no familiarity with. He barely even spoke Spanish. Now, he faced a ten year ban before he could even apply to come to the US legally. He wasn’t going to wait ten years to be with his family. He was going to try and cross again, risking his life in the process. Yet he was willing to take the risk because he had a family he needed to be with. I do not know if he made it across safely. But every cell in my body hopes he did and that he is reunited with his family.
After the trip, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people I met and their desperate desire to reunite with their families. I saw how real people were separated by immigration policies, and I knew I needed to help. I began to imagine ways to put families back together again, right where they belong.
The problem was I had very few resources, and I was scared my ideas would fail. My mantra became: “Start something. Start slow. Start now.” I kept repeating it and asking myself how I would want to be treated if it was me or my family in that situation. What would it be like to leave home and make that life-threatening trek to the border only to be shackled, taken into custody and detained for months or even years? What would it be like to go somewhere looking for help and instead lose my freedom and end up isolated from the world without a voice? What would I need if I was released suddenly into a city I’ve never been to, into a dangerous part of town where I don’t speak the language? What if I had no food or money and no place to go?
I decided to use what little I had to do as much as I could. In 2012, I opened up Casa de Paz in Aurora, Colorado, in my one bedroom apartment right across the street from the GEO ICE Processing Center. The center was opened in 1986 with a contract for 150 people, but has a capacity for 1,532 people—currently they are imprisoning roughly 900 immigrants. I began sharing my home with families of detained immigrants who were coming into town to visit their loved ones and also offering shelter to men and women leaving detention.
Because there was only room for two twin beds at first, I would often end up sleeping on the couch. Slowly we started to grow. There is a small community in Denver committed to the immigrants’ rights movement. I attended every meeting, every rally, every lecture I could. I never had to ask for volunteers, people would just say, “What can I do to help?” and I would tell them. But a few months in, I was already out of money. I decided to use my other passion, volleyball, to keep the doors open. I founded a league called Volleyball Internacional and used the proceeds to pay our bills.
To date, we’ve hosted 1,371 guests from 22 different countries. To accommodate everyone, we moved to a bigger house. Our next big dream is to raise the money to purchase a permanent home. Immigrant detention isn’t going anywhere and neither are we. We think of Casa de Paz as a promise—a promise that as long as detention centers keep families apart, we will be here to offer help and a welcoming home.
Usually when people learn about the obstacles immigrants face, their reaction is the same as mine was, they want to help. As a 100% volunteer-run organization, the Casa has opened the door for them to do just that. Together we raised over $45,000 to make an immediate difference for parents separated from their children at the border under the zero-tolerance policy. We paid bond for 13 parents, paid for 27 flights and sent calling cards to 29 parents so they could find and speak with their kids. We also gained hundreds of new volunteers who are helping with things like cleaning, cooking meals and visiting detained immigrants.
Our mission is to ease the isolating experience of immigrant detention, one simple act of love at a time. Immigration is complicated, but the answers to my original questions were surprisingly straightforward. People need someone to show up and be there for them. They need simple things like transportation, a phone, a meal and a safe place to sleep.
Sarah Jackson lives in Colorado and is the founder of Casa de Paz and Volleyball Internacional.