Roaring Fork Valley students will go to El Paso for deep dive into immigration issues |

Roaring Fork Valley students will go to El Paso for deep dive into immigration issues

Carla Soto, left, and Gabriela Silva are juniors at Basalt High School and daughters of immigrants. They are among five Roaring Fork Valley students who will go to El Paso in June for immersion in immigration studies.
Courtesy photo


A GoFundMe page has been established to help defray costs for some of the Roaring Fork Valley students going to El Paso, Texas, on a Border Immersion Program.

The five students are paying $1,300 apiece plus airfare.

To contribute, go to

Basalt High School junior Carla Soto has vivid memories of when she was about 6 years old and immigration officials raided her home in Lazy Glen.

Her parents shared the residence with members of their extended family. Immigration agents showed up in the middle of the night, announced that there was some sort of emergency and that everybody had to get up.

“They seated all my family members in our living area and surrounded the house,” Soto said. “You could see vehicles with the police sirens and everything outside the house.

“As a child, I really didn’t understand what was happening,” she continued. “What I vividly remember from then is watching my family members get taken away in a black van and driven off.”

Her dad, aunts and uncles were taken away. The only people not detained were Carla and her younger cousin, both U.S. citizens, and Carla’s mom, who had her residency. Other family members still are engaged in the court system to remain in the country.

“It really affected me as a child, not knowing what was happening,” Soto said. “That really stayed with me and now I really want to know what’s happening with (immigration issues).”

She is one of five students from the Roaring Fork Valley who have the opportunity to do just that. The students — two from Basalt, two from Aspen and one from Carbondale — will travel next month to El Paso, Texas, ground zero in the immigration debate. The city is the destination of migrants hoping to gain entry to the U.S. and one of the places where the Trump administration has beefed up border security.

The Aspen Chapel in partnership with a group called the World Leadership School organized a Border Immersion Program for valley students June 10 to 14.

The participating students are Sota and Gabriela Silva from Basalt High School, Tilly Swanson and Carolina Robinson from Aspen High School, and Fiona Ritchie from Colorado Rocky Mountain School.

Michelle Skagen, youth coordinator at the Aspen Chapel and an instructor for World Leadership School, said the students will be exposed to all angles of the immigration debate in El Paso. They will talk to border patrol agents, visit homeless shelters where migrants seeking asylum are staying, consult with immigration attorneys and get a glimpse of life across the border in Juarez.

The idea is to immerse them in all sides of the immigration issue, unfiltered by other sources, so they can reach their own conclusions.

“I think there’s a lot of misleading information in the news media,” Skagen said. “It’s really easy to make assumptions. There’s really something to be said about experiencing this firsthand. The assumptions just melt away.”

Skagen will accompany the students on their border tour.

There are so many residents of the Roaring Fork Valley who are immigrants and children of immigrants, she noted.

“This is clearly an issue we deal with in our valley,” Skagen said. “This touches really close to home.”

She has facilitated three prior student trips to El Paso, while living and working elsewhere, and witnessed how it was a transformative experience for them. It’s all about letting them see and hear information directly.

“It’s not about indoctrination,” she said. “It’s not about influence.”

Silva, also a junior at Basalt High School and a good friend of Soto’s, said they learned about the program in their homeroom class.

“We looked at each other instantly and said, ‘This sounds like a great idea,’” she said.

She is a first-generation U.S. citizen. Her parents now have residency, but when Silva was younger her family lived with daily uncertainty due to the risk of deportation.

“We’ve always had that fear of ‘what if?’” she said. “What would happen to me and my brother?”

Silva has been to the border before, driving across with her family on visits to Mexico. Even in that safe setting, a border crossing was a bit unnerving.

“We just kind of go fast as we can because it’s kind of a scary thing,” she said.

Silva said both she and Soto have heard firsthand stories from their parents about the “dangerous and scary” experience of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. With so many immigrants living in the Roaring Fork Valley, there’s a lot of information about conditions that influenced people to come to the U.S. and what they experienced to do so, she said. Going to El Paso to see conditions at the border will add a dimension to their understanding.

“I think it will be really eye-opening for us because we live in a community where there are a lot of immigrants, but this (will be) firsthand,” Silva said.

She is particularly interested in talking to members of the border patrol. Silva said will undertake the trip with an open mind, but acknowledged it could be a challenge.

“I think it will be hard just because my parents are like, ‘Well, ICE people are scary and they can deport you.’ That will always be in the back of my head, what they do to people, but I’ll try to go in with an open mind as much as I can to see why they do it and the reasons they have behind it,” Silva said.

Her parents encouraged her to take the trip.

“They thought it would be a great idea for me to go,” she said.

Soto said she believes she can be objective despite her family’s experience.

“Yeah, actually I really want to look into their point of view (border patrol) and the reasons they do certain things,” she said. “I really just want to know both sides of the story because I’ve seen one side and I want to see another point of view. So for me, I’m going there with an open mind and taking everything into consideration of why it’s done.”

Swanson, a sophomore at Aspen High School, said she’s fascinated by current events and in learning all sides of issues as part of the school debate team.

“Immigration issues are such a big issue right now,” she said.

She relishes the chance to get a direct look into the issue and people involved in immigration rather than a filtered view from the media. She’s hoping to learn more about the migrants’ plights in their home countries and their motivations to try to gain entry to the U.S.

“Their experiences are something I will never be able to understand,” she said. But the immersion trip will help.

Swanson said she feels the immigration issue has become too politicized. That’s preventing meaningful dialogue and action to solve tough issues.

“We would have a better idea if more people looked at it from a human (basis) rather than a political perspective,” she said.

Soto said she looks forward to meeting the other students from the Roaring Fork Valley and studying conditions in El Paso as a group. As a budding photographer, she plans to document her experience with a huge amount of photos.

She received a $1,500 scholarship from the 5Point Adventure Film Festival as part of its Dream Program.

“I really want to bring social awareness through photography,” she said.

Silva plans to use her brother’s GoPro to video the various interviews and experiences in El Paso for a documentary.

“I want to show what we learned and how we can do better things and how we can avoid certain problems,” she said.

Both girls will report on their experiences as their Capstone Project, a major undertaking that Basalt seniors must complete to graduate.

Skagen said the five participants also will be urged by the Aspen Chapel and World Leadership School to share their El Paso experiences with the rest of the Roaring Fork Valley.

“Upon return, these students have the potential to educate our community beyond what we’re seeing on television, in newspaper and social media,” she said.