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After Detention & Abuse, Immigrants Find Lifesaving Support In An Unexpected Place

All text by Desiree Kane.

Photos and video by Kevin J. Beaty

Three years ago, Juan Jose Antonio Deras, 35, an undocumented immigrant man who arrived in the United States as an 11 year old, walked into the Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora, Colorado. But on July 24, 2015, he left in a wheelchair.

Deras had no friends, family, or loved ones there to pick him up that day. He had no home. He was all but broken, but his indomitable spirit kept him alive, along with support from an unexpected source: a volunteer volleyball league out to help more than just him.

‘The doctors said I was over-reacting’

Deras’ time in detention was difficult. He had a hard time getting the medical care he needed while inside. The detention center sends detainees to nearby facilities, for instance, when unable to meet the medical needs of someone in a wheelchair, as was the case with Deras. However, even when outside medical care was available, it was riddled with issues.

After he was taken to the hospital following a collapse in the yard early last year, there was no investigation into the source of his ailment. It is still unknown what larger medical condition has confined him to his wheelchair.

“When they came to pick me up,” Deras told me in an interview, “they took me in an ambulance. But when they sent me back, they send me in the transport vehicle but they made me walk and they always took me without shoes. That day it was snowing and the floor was frozen.”

Deras had the first asthma attack of his life while inside as well. He suffered breathing problems, and when he reported them to the medical team, instead of sending him to get medical attention, he was sent to solitary confinement.

“[For] five hours they sent me to the hole and they said it was because they weren’t going to give me drugs. I said I didn’t need drugs, I just cannot breathe,” Deras said. A nurse ultimately brought a mask with a machine to help him breathe. “I felt much better,” he said. She believed me, but the doctors said I was over-reacting because I didn’t want to be out with other people.”

“They denied me medical care. There were no x-rays done after I was bleeding when I was going to the bathroom because they don’t have [the] capability to do so with people in metal wheelchairs they told me,” he continued.

“They gave me a Prilosec and told me I had constipation, but I don’t have constipation. They don’t know why I was bleeding,” Deras said. “There was no investigation, just take a Prilosec, take an ibuprofen. They gave me pills for depression, pills for sleep. They get you addicted to that kind of medication.”

Asked if he will be able to afford his prescriptions now that he won’t be getting them for free from the detention center, Deras chuckled, “I take almost 800 pills a month. I don’t need that amount of medicine because now I can go and get real laboratory tests to find out what’s really wrong with me!”

Beyond problematic medical care, food quality at the detention center posed risks to his and other to detainee’s health during his 36 months.

“[Other times] you can find coins, like what happened in my case,” Deras said as he shook his head, “screws, plastic bags, everything in the food.

Detention, after a terrible crossing

Deras’ experience is not unique. Other detainees have experienced neglect as well.

“My experience coming here was very terrible and in detention it’s very racist.” said Eleana Muñon Cabrera. Her terrible trek across the Sonoran Desert from Mexico is written across her face, although she spoke little of it. She reported seeing dead bodies in the desert along the way and, though no measurable statistics exist, many women report being raped during the crossing.

Instead of counseling her about her traumatic journey, Immigration Customs and Enforcement (I.C.E.) imprisoned Cabrera when she arrived with her now-deported brother. “I came here to reunite myself with my family and to have a better life,” she said.

‘To be undocumented is not criminal’

“I don’t know what my future is. Right now, I just want to go and work for my father,” said Jose de Casur Domingo Chavez, a young undocumented migrant worker from Mexico.

He crossed the border near Tijuana and was detained in the Denver Contract Detention Facility like Deras and Cabrera. Chavez’s demeanor was very different and less open than Deras. He was tight-lipped about his experience at the immigrant detention center run by GEO Group, Inc.

Unlike Deras, both Cabrera and Chavez stayed only one night in the independently-run support apartment called Casa de Paz, or House of Peace. The apartment sits across the street from the detention center.

The Casa is open, free of cost, to anyone visiting family with or without documentation. It is also a safe place for those who are just coming out of the detention center.

GEO Group contracts with I.C.E. to house detainees of both genders. The facility is tan and hidden in plain sight, nestled between a motorsports company and a strip mall featuring a Mexican restaurant and a check cashing business. Housed inside are up to 1,500 immigrants. (GEO Group’s contract guarantees a minimum 300 detainees in the facility at all times.)

I.C.E.’s contracts with GEO Group for facilities like the Denver Contract Detention Facility are controversial. Detention Center Watch, a watchdog site focused on prisons, notes that “at 90 percent capacity, GEO Group estimates the Aurora center which houses undocumented immigrants from Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming would generate about $30 million annually in operating revenue.”
“I don’t think we need to be treating immigrants like criminals,” said Deras. “Because to be undocumented is not criminal. I don’t think that place is good to keep people.”

Making crafts to ‘get their mind away from killing themselves’

“A lot of people when they start to learn how to [make these crafts], they get their mind away from killing themselves,” Deras told me, pointing to the value of finding one’s creativity. “Some people called me crazy but this one guy, he was thinking suicidal things. Then, he started making these then came back the next day, and the next day and it became a habit.”

“I make the little shoes and you know, they pay me $20,” he said, seemingly astonished.

Deras, half-smiling, looked over at the 1.5 inch pairs of tiny shoes, mini hats, and handbags he makes. Now that he’s out of detention, he sells his crafts to locals out of what some would consider garbage. These small items are scattered all over the living room.

“You see a lot of bad things in there. The guards, they do bad things to the people like taking away the plastic,” Deras said. “The officers say, ‘You have to throw away these things or send them to property. This is contraband.’ But these things are made from plastic from things I buy from the commissary. More people try to kill themselves in there than not. Then, [the guards] throw these things away to remove hope. Why would you take that away?”

‘There are some things you can’t un-see’

Sarah Jackson, 30, is the founder of the nonprofit organization that runs Casa de Paz. Deras is currently the only full time resident.

In addition to beds, Casa de Paz offers a full kitchen, full bath, living quarters, and a support network of volunteers that can help immigrants and their families as they transition in and out of their experience with the U.S. immigration system. It is open to all nationalities but the bulk of folks are from Central America and Mexico.

All of the funds to pay for the rent and utilities plus the network of volunteers comes from Volleyball Latino, a 45-plus team multi-national tournament league Jackson founded two years ago as the revenue generator for Casa de Paz.

Jackson rents Dive Volleyball, a sports center in a Denver downtown neighborhood, for 3 nights a week. Each team pays $200 per tournament and the extra money, about half the fees after facility rental, goes to the Casa.

“I love the fact that everything is actually going to Casa de Paz, which is a nonprofit, and knowing what Sarah does and what she does for them, it feels really good,” said Leonardo Gomez of his teammate.

“Conservatively about 50% of the people know that we are funding La Casa,” Jackson speculated, referring to the volleyball players.

“For me, I didn’t know, “ commented Teresa Ruiz, mother to one of the tournament players on what the funding from the league goes towards, “but I like it because there aren’t many people doing things to help the situation.”

“It’s something that benefits not only Latin people. It benefits anybody, it doesn’t matter where you’re from.” said Gomez, who has played with the league for the last year and a half.

Later the same day, Deras sold his creations at a table Jackson sets up for him at Volleyball Latino’s tournament nights alongside the complementary pizza. He happily accepted the opportunity. His female customers found the handbags that he makes particularly attractive and notable in their intricacies. Children ran in every which way with them, too.

“The first thing I want to do is get back my legs and after that …” Deras trailed off.

He added, “To my home country, I cannot go back. This is my country. I’ve been here since I was 11 years old. I wish to stay in this country.”

“Since I’ve been [in the U.S.] I haven’t worried that something bad was going to happen to me,” Deras said. “My mother was in the Guerrillas in El Salvador and sent me away with my sister as a baby because she didn’t want that for me,” he explained. “When my brother tried to go back to El Salvador, he only survived 45 minutes. Someone took him from the airport and killed him.”

“I just wanted a free trip,” Jackson commented. “I went down there, and that’s where I started to understand that families are torn apart.”

In 2013, she was working at a church doing administrative work when she had an unexpected chance to go on a trip to Mexico. Jackson witnessed for herself the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border and how U.S. policies affect those on both sides of the fence.

“I came back … and there are some things you can’t un-see. This Casa is what I can do about it.”

And, she’s is not the only one doing what she can to improve everyday life. Deras, with his full line-up of mini saddles, pocketbooks, mini cowboy hats, pencil cups, little shoes, and laptop cases for sale each night of the tournament, took home upwards of $160. It’s a small step closer towards recovery and self-sufficiency in the nation, where he grew up.

Desiree Kane

Desiree Kane