At Aurora vigil, Colorado immigrant rights group sets sights beyond Trump

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AURORA | In 2012, Guadalupe Lopez-Chavez was pulled over in Colorado along with her husband and five children and placed in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility located in Aurora. Neither Lopez-Chavez nor her husband have U.S. driver’s licenses and they are not citizens.

For four days the Thornton resident and her family waited to hear what would happen to them after her husband drove eight miles over the speed limit, resulting in their detainment by Colorado State Patrol officers deputized by ICE — a practice President Donald Trump has said he wants to expand.

Five years later, the mother of five still doesn’t know what is going to happen.

Lopez-Chavez was one of dozens of people to attend a vigil Monday outside the ICE detention facility on Peoria Street and East 30th Avenue. They delivered Valentine’s Day cards to those being held there. This was the eighth year the American Friends Service Committee and Coloradans for Immigrant Rights has held the event.

But the vigil this year had a markedly different tone, said Gabriela Flora, the program director for the service committee’s Denver office. On average, events can draw anywhere from 20 to 300 people and Monday’s vigil was on the larger end, she said.

“Since the election … we’ve seen a lot more allies at our meetings in addition to directly impacted folks,” Flora said. “I think there’s a sense we cannot sit back, we have to stand up and come together and stand for the kind of communities we want, and not for hateful policies that are destructive and contribute to corporations like (GEO Group, Inc.).”

The Aurora facility is one of many detention centers operated by the the privately held GEO Group, and it has been the site of protests, a lawsuit and a hunger strike in recent years due to how immigrants are allegedly treated inside its walls.

Lopez-Chavez, a Mexico native who came to the U.S. when she was 16 years old, was one of those immigrants. She is currently going through deportation proceedings along with her husband.

“I think all of the families without a status are nervous and worried,” she said. “But I’ve spoken with my lawyer and the immigration laws have not actually changed. We know they continue to be the same, even though (the president) is saying different things.”

Trump issued an executive order Jan. 27 barring entry for citizens from seven Muslim majority countries for 90 days and imposed a 120-day halt on all refugees. The order received a litany of criticism from immigrant communities, federal judges and Aurora legislators, despite the president adhering to campaign promises.

And while Trump’s rhetoric and actions have put many on edge, Flora said the conversation about immigration needs to drill down to the bedrock of policies and not just focus on the new president.

“I think for us to have real change … we have to look at the policies, values and beliefs that have allowed us to be in a system where a corporation like GEO is here and they are pushing policies, way prior to the Trump administration,” Flora said. “We have to look at what’s causing that and how did we let companies make policies so they profit off of detaining people?”

Lopez-Chavez recalled her own detainment at the vigil, an experience she described as scary for her and her children. She came to the U.S. many years ago to find work so she could help her financially struggling family. In Chiapas, Mexico, she couldn’t find a job as a young woman where she wouldn’t be harassed or abused by older men.

“Many (immigrant) families are here just working and helping their families,” she said. “We’re good people and we didn’t come to do anything bad to this country.”