After five months locked away at Irwin County Detention Center, Alejandra Garcia Zamarron grew panicked when she saw a familiar face arrive at the immigrant prison. It was her sister, Maytee Garcia. And she, too, was now being held at Irwin.
Once the siblings locked eyes, Alejandra began to weep.
“I was shocked,” she said. “It was devastating, and I was devastated for my mother; both of her daughters were gone.”
Hilda – Maytee and Alejandra’s mother – had fled the violence of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, with her daughters in 1999. Alejandra was 12. Her sister was only nine months old.
Hilda made a home for the girls in Dalton, Georgia, where they have lived for almost 20 years.
But in November 2017, Alejandra, 32, found herself locked up almost 300 miles away at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. In May 2018, Maytee was forced to join her.
Confined to a tiny room packed with over 100 women, they leaned on each other for support as the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) – a project of the SPLC that provides pro bono legal counsel to those facing deportation proceedings in the Southeast – worked to secure their release.
A hard life
In Dalton, Alejandra worked to support her three children – all of whom are U.S. citizens – while Maytee attended Morris Innovative High School. She played the position of striker on the soccer field and aspired to become a teacher. She loved working with children. She also had a fiancé, Antonio, whom she adored. Maytee was working her way toward the American Dream, getting an A in every subject along the way.
But for Alejandra, life hadn’t been as simple.
Throughout the years, she had not only suffered domestic violence and abuse, but also sexual assault. Her burdens sometimes felt too big to bear. Sometimes the pain was too deep.
On a January night in 2018, Alejandra had a few drinks to distract herself from memories that plagued her. She needed a break.
But that break turned into an arrest for public drunkenness.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t Alejandra’s first encounter with the police; she had been charged before, which left her hesitant to renew her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) application, even though she was eligible.
After her arrest, she was prosecuted and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor per an attorney’s advice. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) swiftly whisked her away to Irwin County, where she was locked up on Jan. 6, 2018, before learning the awful truth of her plea deal.
Under immigration law, her misdemeanor became an aggravated felony – an even worse charge for those facing immigration court.
Deceived and detained
With Alejandra locked up, Maytee did her best to comfort her mother through her sadness. It was a lonely time for Hilda.
But on the night of her graduation, she decided to celebrate at a party with Antonio and a few friends. Eventually, the party drew the attention of neighbors, who called the police.
Maytee was arrested and charged with underage drinking. She was taken to the local sheriff’s department, where an officer informed her that ICE had a hold on her. Instead of being released, she would be transferred to federal custody once out of jail.
“I thought my life was over,” Maytee said. “I thought I was going to Mexico, and I was scared – really, really scared.”
After waiting over four hours in an empty room, an official finally entered and handed Maytee a document, telling her it was a “really important paper.” He said that it wasn’t a deportation paper, but that if she “wanted things to be easier,” she had to sign it.
So she did.
As she waited in jail for three days, she relied on the official’s promise. When ICE arrived, they searched her before handcuffing her and shackling her feet.
“They treated me like a criminal,” she said. “They treated me like I had killed someone.”
ICE then took her to Atlanta, where no one mentioned anything about releasing her. Instead, she was transported to Irwin County.
“It was a trick,” Maytee said of signing the document.
Once inside, she saw Alejandra.
“I didn’t cry because I had already cried the past three days,” she said. “I was happy to see her, but I was extremely scared.”
Unlike a person facing criminal charges, detained immigrants are not guaranteed an attorney at government expense. Because their charges are civil in nature, they are allowed an attorney – but they must cover the cost. For many detained immigrants, such as Maytee and Alejandra, this isn’t an option.
However, SIFI decided to take on the sisters’ cases, and SIFI Lead Attorney Elizabeth Matherne was able to secure Maytee’s release in two months. Because Maytee had access to counsel, she was 10-and-a-half times more likely to succeed in her case, according to research.
“The immigration court system moves so quickly, and the laws are so complex that most people, no matter how bright they are, cannot successfully navigate it,” Matherne said. “We are so happy to have secured a bond for Maytee in a jurisdiction where most bond requests are denied, and 98 percent of asylum applications are denied. Maytee will now be able to continue her fight to stay in the U.S. from outside of a detention center.”
Although grateful for her release, Maytee’s experience has left wounds – wounds that have forever changed her.
“In there, you see all of these mothers and young girls, some of whom have been in the U.S. their whole lives,” she said. “What hurts is that they don’t even have a chance. I’m lucky to be in America still. These mothers’ children don’t have their mom or their dad, and they’ll be broken by all of this.”
As soon as she is able, Maytee intends to apply for DACA. Until then, she remains haunted by her experience at Irwin County.
“I never thought it would affect me this much,” she said. “I cry a lot, I have anxiety. I don’t go out anymore, because I’m scared of every cop I see.”
The mere thought of going back to Mexico – a country she has no memory of – also terrifies her.
“I’d probably be dead if I go back,” Maytee said. “I hear people talking about it, and I know I would suffer because there are a lot of gangs.”
‘It’s like a chicken house’
Alejandra’s fight for justice, however, was not yet over.
For months after Maytee’s release, she remained locked inside of Irwin County, where she says she and her fellow detainees were “treated like slaves,” and that “dogs have more rights than them.”
Alejandra said the guards would threaten everyone by saying they had the White House on speed dial. Most of the detainees couldn’t understand the threats; they didn’t understand English.
But Alejandra understood.
“This is not right,” she said during an interview from Irwin County in September 2018. “Even though we don’t have a Social Security number, it’s not right. I have rights as a human being. I’m not a criminal, but in here, everyone is treated worse than that. There’s a lot of injustice in this place. It’s like a chicken house.”
When trying to sleep, the guards – despite constant protests and complaints – would slam the metal door to the crowded room open and shut, causing the walls to vibrate and echoing with a loud boom. On nights when she did sleep, she had recurring nightmares.
“I dream about being deported, about running from the police and being kidnapped,” Alejandra said.
During waking hours, she was allotted one hour outside. There is no shade to save them from the hot Georgia sun during the summer months, which meant the women were left to gather on the makeshift volleyball court and endure the heat.
For meals, Alejandra was fed a bland assortment of vegetables, soggy rice and meat. She called the meat, “mystery meat,” because no one knows if it’s chicken, beef or pork – only that it’s black in color.
However, food was not the worst part of Alejandra’s long detention. She’ll never be able to forget the moment when a guard yelled to her, “I don’t give a damn about your kids.”
An unhappy ending
With her sister held prisoner at Irwin County, Maytee continued to pray for Alejandra’s release.
“I just really hope she’ll get out of there,” she said during an interview in September 2018. “I know it’s affecting her a lot. She’s been going through a really hard time in her life, and I just want her to be strong. I don’t want her to suffer.”
But despite desperately fighting to stay in the U.S. where she could raise her three children and be with her sister and mother, at the end of 2018, almost one year after she arrived at the immigrant prison, Alejandra was ordered deported back to Mexico – a country she hadn’t seen or visited in almost 20 years.
“Alejandra’s immigration case ended in a way all-too-familiar to those who fight daily in the Atlanta Immigration Court,” Matherne said. “If due process and constitutional protections were functioning as most Americans believe them to be, Alejandra would never have been convicted of a crime, nor would she have been summarily removed from her children and family to a country she doesn’t even remember.”
Maytee is heartbroken. So is her mother, Hilda. They’ve tearfully prayed that she will be safe.
“We all feel so alone,” Maytee said. “We feel like no one cares about us, that no one cares immigrants.”
Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters