Earlier this year, 17-year-old “AKB” arrived alone in the U.S. after fleeing from his home country of Mali, following the deaths of his entire family. AKB found himself in a detention center, and potentially facing deportation.
However, the Colorado Immigrant Justice Fund (CIJF) took up his case and fund an attorney to assist AKB in immigration court. He was granted asylum in September.
According to Greg Mortimer, a co-founder of CIJF, AKB’s case is far from unique.
“We’ve met with immigrants from over 50 countries. A large majority of those we’ve met with have fled dangerous situations in their countries of origin,” Mortimer said. “… If they lose their legal case, then they face the odds of being deported, and in more extreme cases that could well be a death sentence.”
Formed in 2020, the Colorado Immigrant Justice Fund (CIJF) is a volunteer organization that aims to raise money for the legal defense of immigrants in detention.
“The statistics we see are, roughly 85% of people in detention are not able to get access to legal counsel,” Mortimer said. “… And so for people who do not have an attorney and are trying to win their case, their odds of winning are around three to five percent of the time. But with an attorney, their odds of winning their case increase by a factor of about 10 or 11.”
Mortimer continued: “Our thought was, if a lot of people can give just a little – 5, 10, 20 bucks a month – we could do something, right?”
The group has its roots among volunteers with Casa de Paz, an Aurora-based nonprofit that provides hospitality services to immigrants released from detention, including helping with food and support as they move on. Mortimer said that he and other volunteers coordinated a visitation program for detainees starting in 2018.
“In any sort of, I guess you might say advocacy work, the closer you get to that is when you start to meet actual human beings,” Mortimer said. “Some of these topics, like immigration, which is an incredibly polarizing topic in our culture – once you start actually meeting with immigrants in detention, then it changes everything, right?”
As these volunteers corresponded with immigrants in detention, they came to the conclusion that a legal defense fund would be vital.
“One of the things we found out very early on, and it was a surprise to us, is that unlike our criminal justice system, immigrants in detention do not have the right to legal counsel,” Mortimer said. “So they’re left to, for the most part, navigate our complicated legal system and advocate for themselves in immigration court on their own. And if they lose those cases, it means they’re deported.”
They started by crowdfunding asylum cases via GoFundMe, but wanted to do more. In 2020, the CIJF was officially launched to facilitate fundraising on a wider scale.
“That first year, we were able to raise about $60,000,” Mortimer said. “We were able to raise legal funds for nine immigrants who we met as a result of the pen-pal and visitation program, and then also provide some legal services for folks in Louisiana. And so we have about 125 monthly donors, and the majority of them are Casa de Paz volunteers.”
Currently, CIJF’s members are hopeful to see if they can do even more.
“So we’re just trying to see what we can do now in potentially taking this to the next level,” Mortimer said. “Our goal – and who knows if it’s too ambitious or not – is by the end of this second year, to be able to triple our monthly income, which is just under $5,000 right now.”
Since its inception, the organization has stressed financial transparency among its donors.
“All of us on the CIJF team are volunteers. None of us take a salary for this, or any sort of pay. So 100 percent of the money that comes in goes directly toward funding legal services for immigrants we meet in detention,” Mortimer explained. “The majority of that funding, maybe 95% of the funding so far, has gone towards funding attorneys to provide legal services for immigrants that we’ve met in detention.”
In August, following CIJF’s one-year anniversary, the group released a report detailing what they have accomplished with their donations, as well as their plans for future projects.
“Our primary focus is to increase our funding by, our goal is, a factor of three by the end of this year,” Mortimer said.
Currently, CIJF is not an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Up until this point, they have operated under the fiscal umbrella of Project Renew, a subdivision of Denver Community Church, which does have nonprofit status. Project Renew has handled and processed donations on CIJF’s behalf.
However, that may change soon, as members of CIJF weigh the benefits of applying to become their own nonprofit organization – a change that some think may help them to meet their funding goals.
“We’re looking really hard at the potential of becoming a 501(c)(3), so we can start going after some grant money,” Mortimer said.
Mortimer continued: “We’re all rookies. We’re just trying to figure it out. All we know is, we meet these people in detention who are lovely human beings, we become friends with them, and it’s like, hey, what can we do to walk alongside them and assist where needed?”