I spent the last week working with a small group of law students and attorneys at a detention center in rural Georgia. It has been two days since I’ve returned, and I still don't truly have the words. Last night I cried, and today I cried again from processing thoughts and emotions of this week.
The people in detention that I met came from across the world. None of them was a criminal. Most of them were seeking asylum for atrocities that they and their families were experiencing. Few spoke English. Many had brought wrinkled papers, soft from travel in pockets. Many had been in the detention center for months, some for years.
Every single one had a different, difficult, human, heartbreaking story. They left or lost their families, or risked taking them along on their arduous, potentially fatal journeys to this country. They were shot at. They were starving. They were kidnapped. They saw people die. They lost all their property and belongings. They got to the border of the U.S., turned themselves in, and asked for help.
In turn, they got shipped from California through Arizona, across the country to the middle of nowhere – Georgia near the Florida border – and kept in a detention center that operated like a private prison.
I won’t, and can’t, go into every story I heard this week. I wish I could sit you all down and tell every last one of their stories so that someone else would bear witness to what they’ve endured. I wish I could share with you what it felt like to hear from a man whose daughter was born months ago, but whose name he does not know because he’s been in detention since before she was born, and he can't contact his wife back in Cameroon.
I wish I could tell you the whole heartbreaking story of a man from Mexico whose daughter had been hospitalized, and he had not been able to reach her for weeks. I looked into his eyes and told him that I had spoken to her on the phone that morning – even though he couldn’t – and I let him know that she would be OK.
I also want to tell the stories of the attorneys and advocates who work with these people every day to make sure they get a chance at bond or parole. There are some really amazing, inspiring, kind, wonderful individuals who work so hard to make sure these human beings who are being kept in detention – for doing nothing wrong except not having immigration status when they asked for asylum – are still able to feel like humans, and to be treated as such. There are some really incredible people, working out of small, modest spaces in small, modest towns, who are doing this kind of work every day, and will never be recognized even close to as much as they deserve for answering this call to action.
I won’t tag (name) the other students who joined me, because our experience was as diverse and as wonderful and different as the people we met with. But I want to thank them, too, for making my week incredible in all the other ways I haven’t listed here. We’re truly colleagues and friends now, even if we didn’t know each other that well at the beginning of the week, and I’m glad to have them as I get ready to enter the profession of law.
If I had any flicker of a doubt about practicing law before, it’s gone now.
Kelcey L. Baker is a third-year law student at UNC School of Law, part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She recently volunteered for the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) – a project of the SPLC that enlists and trains volunteer lawyers to provide free legal representation to detained immigrants who are facing deportation proceedings in the Southeast.
Kelcey recently wrote a post on Facebook about her spring break, when she volunteered for SIFI. She helped detained immigrants win bond and parole hearings at the Folkston ICE Processing Center in Folkston, Georgia.