A vigil about the true cost of family separation

Outside a controversial detention center in Colorado, protestors highlight both the family burdens from and the profitability of deportation.


Protesters gather outside Aurora Colorado's immigration detention facility. Nearly 1,500 men and women are detained in the center.
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images

On a hot July evening, Henry Javier Cruz-Moreno’s wife and stepdaughter joined others outside the Aurora Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility, just outside Denver, where Cruz-Moreno been held for eight months. They were protesting a system that has separated tens of thousands of families, including their own.

At the time of the protest, Henry Javier Cruz-Moreno was 2,000 miles away from his family, in Honduras, where he was deported in May. 

“I cried,” said his stepdaughter, Farah Broomandi, recalling the hearing at which a judge ordered Cruz-Moreno to be sent back to Honduras. “I said, ‘The man that youre sending away feeds needy people. He owns a business, he pays taxes. He shovels old peoples sidewalks. These are the people youre sending away.’ ”

Cruz-Moreno’s detention and eventual deportation have imposed a tremendous emotional, medical and financial burden on the family. Broomandi was forced to sell her house and move back in with her mother.

On July 12, the two women were among about 2,000 people who attended a vigil as part of Lights for Liberty, a worldwide protest against family separation and detention centers. Several hundred people participated in an earlier protest, “March to Close the Concentration Camps,” which made its way from the local light-rail station to the ICE facility, and was greeted by approving honks from passing cars. The protests in Aurora aren’t new: Locals have been opposed to the detention center for at least half a decade.

“Im a grandmother, Im a mother, and I just think whats happening is appalling,” said Patty Lampman, the Air Force veteran who organized the vigil. “Im somebody who served my country for 20 years. This is not OK. This is not what we should be about.”

Jeanette Vizguerra, an undocumented migrant currently seeking sanctuary in a local church, participated in the protest remotely. “My heart is full of hope to see so many people wanting to support the immigrant community,” she said in a statement that was read aloud by a supporter. In 2017, Vizguerra made national news for spending 86 days in a local church to avoid deportation.

“Today, people are aware and awakened to the reality that this president is turning this into a country full of injustices by using the worst, inhumane strategies,” she said. “And who will take responsibility for these acts? What role does Congress have in this holocaust?”

Located on the outskirts of Aurora, 3130 Oakland St. is a forbidding brick behemoth with few windows, set back from the street by a grassy moat. Inside, nearly 1,500 men and women are detained, awaiting possible deportation. Run by the controversial for-profit GEO Group, the Aurora ICE facility has a reputation for medical neglect. In June, 152 prisoners were quarantined due to outbreaks of infectious diseases such as mumps and chicken pox, and in 2017, Iranian national Kamyar Samimi died in custody after suffering from opioid withdrawal.

“Like all Americans, we at the GEO Group are concerned about the unprecedented humanitarian crisis at our southern border; we acknowledge the challenge, but we are appalled by this historically and factually inaccurate portrayal of our facilities,” a spokesperson for the GEO Group said in response to the protest. 

When Danielle Jefferis, a clinical fellow at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, pointed out that GEO made over $2 billion in revenue in 2018 because “detention is a profitable business,” the crowd chanted in reply, “Shame!” Since 2014, the company’s revenue has grown by $600 million. In 2002, private immigrant detention centers in America held fewer than 5,000 people; by 2017, the imprisoned population had ballooned to 26,000.

In Aurora, locals have taken action. A volunteer-run humanitarian organization, Casa de Paz, has been helping locally held detainees and their families since 2012, and the district’s newly elected representative, Democrat Jason Crow, has made detention center oversight a priority, introducing a bill that would require detention facilities to admit members of Congress for inspections within 48 hours of notice.

During the vigil, a small faction of the protesters crossed the bridge that separates the facility from the street, something that organizers had warned them against. As the sun set, some of them took down three flags outside the building and replaced them with a Mexican flag and a defaced, upside-down American flag. Police then told organizers that the protest had to disperse, but no arrests were made.

Though most protesters left, several hundred stayed until 9 p.m., when they lit candles, raising them in the darkness to silently proclaim solidarity with immigrants and families like Cruz-Moreno’s.

Dan Garisto is a freelance journalist based in New York. He writes about science for publications such as Scientific American, Hakai, Symmetry, and Science News. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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