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The "No Due Process Zone" - representing detained immigrants in Georgia

During May 2017, I spent a week as a volunteer lawyer at the Stewart Detention Center as part of the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative. As a volunteer lawyer, I worked with clients from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua to try to get them released from immigration detention against all odds! Because I was so moved by my experience, I wrote the following account.

 

My route to the detention center crossed huge verdant stretches of the American Southeast and its past. Green everywhere and no signs of industry or farming or anything besides the land itself. Right before reaching the Stewart Detention Center, I wound my way through Lumpkin Georgia, where the majority of the population counted by the census is locked up in the private prison on the other side of town. Of note in Lumpkin is the empty ease of the place that is just barely clinging on for dear life. The dilapidated buildings gently fall; the post office lets you know that at least you are in a recognizable zip code. Past the gas stations which are the only places with food - fried food, junk food and bags of chalk (a local edible delicacy) – you wind through green trees until CCA Road comes up on the right. There you see the ugliest structure imaginable: huge parking lot, everything secured and lit, parking spots designated for all the federal and local employees who feed off this place like parasites, and a double layer of chain-link fence with barbed wire on the top and the faces. ICE has a trailer off to the side where they keep the deportation machine well-oiled under almost total secrecy. Entering the place, I leave everything in the car and bring only my files, my ID, a pen and my car key. I wait out front of the double secure fencing for someone watching me on camera to buzz me in to the inside of the chain-link fences, wait for it to close, buzz me into the second door, wait for it to open and then walk into the low flat gray expansive structure that holds in all the weeping and the terror of 1900 men and trans women, who are strangers.

The Steward Detention Center is so isolated and so hostile to admitting lawyers in to visit clients, that most attorneys have given up on personal visits and handle everything over a video conference instead of dealing with the obstacles to accessing a client in person. At the immigration court, housed inside the prison building, you can also opt for telephonic appearances (meaning your client sits alone and handcuffed in a room with the judge and the government attorney). One attorney I met in the waiting area had repeatedly been told that she could not enter the facility with her bra because the underwire set off the metal detector. This battle to vindicate her right to wear a bra lasted for many months of back and forth with the senior staff, but eventually she regained her ability to visit her clients in normal work attire that any female in the US reasonable expects to be able to wear! I experienced this one day when I had two barrettes in my hair. The guards would not let me in unless I undid my hair and took them out. I refused because I know this does not happen at other facilities. At other jails and detention centers, a guard will wand you to locate the offensive item and then let you pass once he or she determines that you are not carrying in a dangerous item. Not at Stewart. The week before, an African-American woman, who had some metal pieces in her hair that could not be taken out, had also been refused access because of the guard’s refusal to use the wand. I was told that I would have to speak with the shift manager because he was the only staff person, pursuant to CCA’s security policy, who could use the wand. It took an hour. (And he refused).

However, when I snapped these pictures of the facility, I was immediately greeted by the senior officer. He did not want anyone taking pictures.

Even assuming that you are not wearing a contraband hairdo, you will commonly still wait up to an hour or more in the waiting area because the facility takes so long to do “count.” It can take them several hours to count all of the detainees and account for their whereabouts.

While this is supposed to happen at set times during the day and last about 45 minutes, count appears to happen at random and last for several hours, meaning you wait in the waiting area until you are permitted to go to the visitation room, which is about 20 feet away. Again, this difficulty remains unique to Stewart – out of all the facilities I have been to. At this point, I should say that Stewart is an immigration detention centerno one there is serving a sentence imposed by a criminal court! No one is there because of committing a crime! Nevertheless, the security procedures are the worst I have seen anywhere… and that includes Riker’s Island, where there are a number of violent offenders. Spending time at Stewart reminded me of the brutality, cruelty and senselessness of the detention regime in remote areas like the Southeast and the Southwest, where the detention complex floods you with hopelessness no matter who you are.

At the Stewart immigration court, there are four judges. They are attorneys, who have been offered permanent positions as an administrative law judge in the Executive Office for Immigration Review, a sub agency of the Justice Department. The Stewart court has two bad ones and two OK and sometimes good ones. The two bad ones deny everything: no bond, no wins.

For the week that I was volunteering at SIFI, the goal was to pump out bond motions for bond hearings. We knew bond would be denied, but the hope was to set the case up well for appeal so that judges on the appeals court could overturn the judges at Stewart. The two bad judges, who deny bond to everyone (or very nearly everyone), use a twisted rationale to deny bond to asylum seekers. They insist that the possibility of being granted asylum is speculative and that without a guarantee of winning the deportation case, release through payment of bond is not justified.

This is not an argument or rationale to deny bond used by immigration judges in New York; the Stewart judges are excessively harsh. The population of asylum seekers at Stewart are mostly, but not all, Central American and have not lived in the United States previously. They don’t have a job history here, no US citizen children here, they do not speak English, and they do not have close ties in this country yet. Really, the only strength in their cases for seeking bond is that they do not have a prior criminal history and that they have a legitimate fear of persecution or worse, usually based on past persecution in their home countries. Showing that you have a valid claim to some kind of relief from deportation, like asylum, is usually enough to get the judge to set some kind of bond. Without a bond, you must sit in the detention facility while you await your hearing and you appear in front of the same judge to fight for asylum that denied you bond in the first place. In detention, you have no ability to make free phone calls, there is no law library, you cannot see a doctor (only in rare cases do you get referred for outside medical treatment), you cannot have therapy or mental health treatment, you cannot earn money to send to your family who is destitute and probably in hiding, and you are separated from your children, family etc. To see people withstand that level of deprivation in a system that they know is rigged against them, and to do so with only the faintest of hope that they will leave that detention center and touch U.S. soil, is only the tiniest indicator of the hopeless circumstances that many of them are running from. I will also just say, that for two of the people that I met with, their friends or relatives, who had the exact same claims to asylum and pretty much identical circumstances, had ended up at other detention centers and had been released on bond. The only thing keeping these men at Stewart was Stewart. 

With the dedicated help of volunteer attorneys making the trip to Lumpkin, Georgia, and the sacrifices of the men detained there, we hope that we can fight back and make sure that all that is left of Stewart is the lush greenery of the Southern Georgia landscape. It is no place for human beings. 

 

Elise McCaffrey