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Denver students help immigrants in detention through 'service learning' class

"Students are hungry to help. They're hungry to learn. They're hungry to step in someone else's shoes," says professor who started the program
Posted: 4:51 PM, May 03, 2024
Updated: 2024-05-06 08:42:07-04
Rachel Bienstock DU immigrant detention visit

DENVER — Most college students spend their time on campus, studying in classrooms. But at the University of Denver, some students are heading out into the community to learn by helping immigrants.

“The first time that I went to the detention center, I was really honestly surprised,” said DU student Rachel Bienstock. “It felt like I was in a prison scene from a movie,” she said.

At the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Aurora, Bienstock passes through security checks and sits behind a plexiglass wall to talk with immigrants through a phone attached to the wall.

“What I loved about my class is that it wasn't treated as just a classroom subject,” she said. “We were learning about it as: this is something that's happening in our community. What can we do to help it?”

Professor Liz Escobedo started the Casa de Paz Learning Community almost seven years ago to expand her students’ academic experience into a real-life lesson. As part of her immigration history course – and classes taught by professors in the university’s sociology, anthropology and Spanish departments – she requires students to engage in “service learning.”

“Students are hungry to help. They're hungry to learn. They're hungry to step in someone else's shoes,” Escobedo said. “Students are really able to practice compassion and empathy in important ways, while also learning the history.”

Students partner with local nonprofits, like the Casa de Paz and the Colorado Immigrant Justice Fund, to connect with and help people facing deportation.

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Students visit immigrants in detention, write letters and connect them with legal support. They also help immigrants released from detention to book travel and access services.

"Students are able to recognize that they can make a difference in reuniting families and giving hope to migrants who may be feeling like they've really been tossed out and not represented in the system,” Escobedo said.

After the class ends, many students continue volunteering and some take on full-time jobs as immigration lawyers or advocates.

Since Escobedo started the service-learning opportunity for students, she said she’s seen more and more migrants being detained. Nearly 1,000 immigrants are at the facility in Aurora on an average day.

“Students who in the past might have been working with five to 10 migrants in an evening, now are working potentially with 20 to 50 migrants," she said.

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Bienstock who visited immigrants as part of her class “Deportation Nation,” taught by sociology Professor Lisa Martinez, said she’s met with some immigrants multiple times and forged a tight bond.

Carmen, who came from Venezuela to earn money to support her children, told Bienstock she head no legal defense.

“I was really passionate about trying to help her, trying to find ways to hire low-bono or pro-bono attorneys to defend her in court,” Bienstock said.

Carmen didn’t qualify for legal aid because of the details of her case.

"She's probably going to be deported. And to me, that was so heartbreaking,” Bienstock said. But she hasn’t given up on helping others. She still visits immigrants and suggests potential cases to the Colorado Immigrant Justice Fund, which pays for lawyers.

Greg Mortimer created the fund after many years of volunteering with Casa de Paz, DU’s nonprofit partner. Since 2017, he’s seen the visitation and letter writing programs grow exponentially. College students are the “lifeblood” of the volunteer group, he said.

"Immigration has become, unfortunately, such a divisive topic in our country,” Mortimer said. But when students and other community members visit immigrants in detention, “all of that kind of political hogwash just goes away.”

“Many of the people with whom we are meeting are asylum seekers from very dangerous parts of the world,” he said. "If they were deported, that would probably be a death sentence for them.”

With such high stakes, and rising political tensions around immigration, Escobedo said classes like hers are an opportunity for students to “really try to put yourself in someone else's shoes, and to look at immigrants as human beings who are deserving of compassion, who are deserving of empathy, and a fair chance at making a better life for themselves and for their families.”

Denver students help immigrants in detention through 'service learning' class

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