One Woman’s Mission to Reunite Immigrant Families

FRANKFORT, MICHIGAN AND AURORA, COLORADO VIA PHONE—Sarah Jackson doesn’t have a background in non-profit management, but that didn’t stop her from starting a non-profit offering hospitality to people affected by immigration detention. Six years ago, Ms. Jackson opened Casa de Paz (which translates in English to House of Peace), a non-profit in Aurora, Colorado near the Denver Contract Detention Facility–a U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility. Reflecting on how she started Casa de Paz, Ms. Jackson told she-files’ Kristin Kirsch Feldkamp, “I’m a high school dropout. I did not study philanthropy. I just saw that there were families being separated because of immigration policies and I wanted to create something to help put families back together again.”
When Ms. Jackson started Casa de Paz, she had a one-bedroom apartment that she opened to family members of detainees and she was the only volunteer. Today, Casa de Paz is in a proper house and has added post-release support for those recently released from detention and a visitation program so detainees don’t feel so alone. The Casa, as Ms. Jackson affectionately calls her non-profit, has over 600 volunteers and had hosted 1,320 guests as of mid-July. A few of those guests have been in the news recently; one of them is Brenda Ramirez-Garcia, a mother who fled domestic abuse in El Salvador and was separated for a month from her seven-year-old son after she crossed the border in Arizona on May 26, 2018. EXCERPTS:
Brenda Ramirez-Garcia and Sarah Jackson at Casa de Paz
Kirsch Feldkamp: In a recent Colorado Public Radio interview, you said Casa de Paz came out of a trip to Mexico. Can you tell us about that trip?
I was working at a church in Colorado Springs as a pastor’s assistant and [the pastor] got invited to go down to the [Mexican] border to learn about immigration issues. He wasn’t able to go on that trip and I volunteered to go because I thought it would be fun. I really didn’t know much about immigration. So, I went on that trip not at all expecting my life to change but that’s what happened. After I got back from the trip, I took about a year and did as much research as I could. I was going back and forth from Colorado Springs to Denver just about every week, so I could be a part of immigration-related events. About a year [after I moved to Denver], I decided it was the right time to start [Casa de Paz].
How did you start out? What was your first day like?
For the first month, no one stayed in the apartment because it was kind of a weird thing—here’s this lady who is letting people stay in her house totally free. So, it took a while for people to hear about it and to trust us. [People heard about it] mainly [by] word of mouth through friends I had met in the immigrant rights world in Denver. Originally, we didn’t do any of the post-release stuff—it was just families [of detainees] staying with us. The post-release stuff happened later when loved ones of families who had stayed with me were eventually released. They would call me and say, “Oh, my dad got out. Can he come stay with you for a couple days until we can get him a bus ticket or come into town to pick him up?”
Can you tell us a little bit about what your residents and volunteers are like?
We have over 600 volunteers from all over the state who come from all different walks of life. Some are involved every week at the Casa and some help out once a year. We’re all volunteers. We’ve hosted 1,320 guests over the past six years from 22 countries. The majority of the people who stay with us are asylum seekers who have been released from detention and have family somewhere in the United States that they’re trying to get to. Recently, we hosted some of the mothers who have been separated from their children at the border and have been released from detention with the hopes of finding where their child is being held and reunite with them.
Can you tell us more about the story of Maria and her daughter? 
[Maria] was from Central America and she came to the United States seeking asylum. Immediately at the border she was separated from her seven-year-old daughter, and they were both held in detention centers. Maria was here in Denver and her daughter was in Texas. Maria got out and began the long process of trying to figure out how to get her daughter back. And it had been about two and a half weeks since Maria was released from detention before she was able to finally get her daughter back. That was a scary time for her as you can imagine, not knowing if her daughter was okay and how she was doing. Out of the nine mother’s we’ve hosted, only two of them have been reunited with their kids. Some of them know where their children are, some of them don’t. We’re trying to do our best to help them locate their children and get them back.
Brenda Ramirez-Garcia reunited with her son

What’s involved in helping a mother locate her children and get them back?
Right now we’re working with this nonprofit in California called Freedom for Immigrants. They have an online database where we can fill out all of the information that we know about that child and give them clues and they have a team on the backend that will do some of the investigation and try to scour some of the databases that they have access to. Our volunteers basically speak with the parents and get all the information they can to give to the organization in California.

Are you seeing more of this since April’s Zero Tolerance Policy?
This has been going on for decades. The only difference is that we began putting children in separate detention centers than their parents were being held in; before we would hold families together in detention centers. And now even though the families aren’t being separated anymore and held in different detention centers, families are held in prison. I’m hopeful that this is an opportunity for the public to understand that this has been going on for many, many years. It’s a huge money-maker for these [private] prisons that are detaining families. As long as people are looking at it from a dollar sign viewpoint it’s not going to go away.
What is one thing the general public should know about immigration policy in the US at the moment? 
I think if you can find an opportunity to meet someone and hear their story of either immigrating to the United States or detention or being separated from their family because of immigrant detention you should take advantage of it. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. If we can try to imagine ourselves in one of their situations and [think about] what we would do for our children or our parents or our brother or sister, if we can try to look through that lens I think the whole world would be a better place.

by Kristin Kirsch Feldkamp
Photos courtesy of Sarah Jackson

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