AURORA | A group gathered outside of the GEO immigrant detention center in Aurora Tuesday evening to call for justice for the Nicaraguan asylum seeker who died last month.
Melvin Ariel Calero-Mendoza, 39, died Oct. 14 at University of Colorado Hospital, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Over a month later, little information has been released about what happened to him, including his cause of death, what medical care he received inside the facility and what emergency medical service agency responded. An autopsy from the Adams County Coroner is pending.
Jennifer Piper, a program director for the American Friends Service Committee, said during the gathering that Calero-Mendoza’s death is indicative of the unsafe conditions at the detention center, including an inadequate number of medical professionals on staff.
“We’re consistently concerned about the safety of detainees inside the facility, both their physical and their mental health,” Piper told The Sentinel.
Calero-Mendoza had been at the facility since May 2, according to ICE. He was apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol April 13 and was at the Aurora facility awaiting completion of his removal proceedings.
On Oct. 5, a judge with the Executive Office of Immigration Review ordered Calero-Mendoza’s removal and denied all relief. A 30-day period was granted before removal to accommodate any potential appeals.
GEO Group Inc. is a privately-owned company which operates prisons and detention centers across the country, including a number of immigration detention facilities. Its Aurora location has been the target of frequent criticism from immigration and civil rights groups over its treatment of detainees. Calero-Mendoza is the third person to die at the facility in nearly four decades.
In 2019, the ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit against the company for the wrongful death of Kamyar Samimi, an Iranian immigrant who died in the Aurora detention center in 2017.
A separate class action lawsuit is ongoing, alleging that GEO practices amount to forced labor of detainees and violate Colorado federal labor laws. The complaint, first filed in 2014, alleged that detainees who refused to work for little or no pay were threatened with solitary confinement. Similar lawsuits have been filed in other states.
In a 2015 statement to the the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, GEO Group called claims that detainees have been retaliated against or coerced to work “baseless and demonstrably false.”
“When it built and expanded the Aurora Detention Facility, GEO promised to create hundreds of quality jobs in Aurora,” the initial class action lawsuit filing said. “However, GEO unlawfully uses detainees to clean, maintain, and operate the facility. GEO pays detainees $1 per day, or no wages at all, for their labor. In 2013, The GEO Group, Inc. reported $1.52 billion in total revenues.”
Just days after Calero-Mendoza’s death, a federal judge ruled that the lawsuit could go forward, rejecting claims from GEO that it was shielded from the suit by federal laws about government contractors.
Since 2019, Aurora Congressman Jason Crow’s office has been conducting regular visits to the facility and publishes weekly reports about the detention center. The most recent report, published Nov. 11, said that there are currently 802 people detained at the Aurora facility.
The report said that the facility employs one medical doctor, two physician assistants, eight registered nurses and seven LPNs, two psychologists, four tele-psychiatrists, one social worker and eight other medical and dental staff.
Crow has advocated for the closure of all for-profit immigration detention centers, including the Aurora GEO facility.
At the vigil this week, Piper and immigrant rights activist Jeanette Vizguerra read a statement from Calero-Mendoza’s sister Adilia Calero-Mendoza in English and Spanish.
In her statement, she said that the family has not received an adequate explanation from ICE about how her brother died and that they have also not been contacted by the Nicaraguan consulate, which is responsible for repatriating Calero-Mendoza’s body, despite repeated attempts to contact them.
“This is so very painful, and I want a real explanation from ICE and from the jail where he was being detained because I feel there was a lot of harm done to him given the way my brother died,” the statement said.
Adilia Calero-Mendoza is being represented by a team at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law’s Immigration Law and Policy Clinic.
The speakers said they were calling on Congress and President Biden to shut down immigrant detention facilities and to pass legislation giving people a pathway to citizenship.
“It’s not only about Mr. Calero-Mendoza,” Piper said at the vigil. “This is about the hundreds of people who face similar neglect and devastating consequences on their lives.”
The vigil closed with activists setting up a small altar outside the GEO facility to replace one that had been previously taken down while the song “Imagine” by John Lennon played, which Vizguerra said was dedicated to Calero-Mendoza along with the victims of the shooting at Club Q.
“No one should have to fear for their life or be hated for who they are,” she said.