Compañeros: Four Corners Immigrant Resource Center originated in the late 1990s following a community push to shut down plans to build an immigrant detention center in La Plata County. Today, the organization has come full circle by launching an innovative legal service program, which aims to support migrants in need of legal assistance related to immigration issues. As Compañeros’ accredited representative with the Department of Justice, I can attest to the importance of this new work.
Compañeros’ legal aid program is a response to the unprecedented deportation of human beings from the U.S. Every year, millions of fathers, mothers and children are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and placed in private detention centers without legal representation. These for-profit prisons are corporate concentration camps that operate just far enough beneath the surface that most are blind to their impact on our community and national well-being.
Since 2002, over 5 million people have been deported from the U.S., and the vast majority have been processed without legal counsel. Deportees are returned home, where they typically face persecution by authoritative governments and extra-governmental forces like cartels and paramilitaries. Jeremy Slack, Ph.D., from the University of Texas captures this reality in his devastating, but appropriately titled book, “Deported to Death.”
My interest in advocating for immigrant legal services began in the fall of 2018, when I met an immigrant from Mexico, who I’ll refer to as Rogelio. At the time, Rogelio was working for a company building homes in Edgemont Highlands. Fleeing cartel violence, he and his family had arrived just six months earlier.
In September, Rogelio was detained by ICE agents on his way to work. Within hours, he found himself in a detention center in Aurora run by GEO Inc., which reported a net income of roughly $160 million in 2022. Rogelio’s wife, Marta, reached out to me immediately.
“What do I do?” she asked.
I had no idea. At the time, I simply didn’t know enough about the legal system to provide meaningful advice. But I knew people who did. After a few short calls, I got back to Marta with a plan.
That evening, Marta drove to Denver, hired legal counsel and paid her husband’s $2,000 bond. Two days later, they returned home to piece together their traumatized family. Armed with legal assistance, they applied for asylum, which affords them work visas while they wait for an immigration judge to decide their fate. But the odds aren’t in their favor. Currently, judges approve just 27% of asylum requests in Colorado.
America’s legal system is based on a simple principle: due process. According to the 5th amendment, no person is to be deprived of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law.” And since 1776, the concept of due process has progressively expanded. But there is one exception: immigrants. Over time, and particularly since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, due process for immigrants has been reduced. In fact, our current immigration system operates as if the concept didn’t exist at all.
Most immigrants face deportation alone and at an extremely high cost. An astounding 80% of immigrants with removal proceedings lack legal counsel and most are ultimately deported. But there is a silver lining. The overwhelming majority of immigrants with legal representation are granted relief from deportation.
At Compañeros, our goal is to ensure that everyone – regardless of legal status – has a fair day in court. In fact, we believe doing so is crucial to the rights of all people. When we allow millions of individuals to be legally processed outside the Constitution, we place everyone’s rights at risk.
Ben Waddell is an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College and serves on the board of Compañeros, a Durango-based immigration rights nonprofit.