When I volunteered for SIFI at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, I didn’t know what to expect. But I certainly didn’t expect this.
I didn’t expect to be afraid when I entered the first gate and it shut behind me, as the second gate in front of me remained closed. I was literally trapped between the two outside entry gates, like one of the hamsters I used to own.
I later realized that there was a small button I could push to alert the staff that I needed to proceed through the second gate (there was no signage explaining what the button was for) and, of course, there were cameras everywhere, so someone could see me.
But during the 30 to 45 seconds I stood there for the first time, there was no one else in sight, and I had no idea if anyone else knew I was there, or what I needed to do to get someone’s attention. I suddenly had a minute glimpse of what it feels like to be a detainee, not being able to even step inside a building without the guards’ approval.
One of the SIFI staff attorneys told me that as she entered the detention center during winter, when it was cold and rainy, she felt that although the guards knew she was stuck between the gates, they kept her standing there for several minutes. She started to just press the button non-stop for as long as it took for them to open the second gate. It was a small act of resistance.
I didn’t expect to wish that they would use Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) security measures for clearance into the center. While I have never had to remove jewelry prior to going through TSA security, the security requirements at Stewart were different.
At Stewart, I learned I was required to remove all my jewelry (a simple necklace, small earrings, a small silver chain bracelet and my elephant hair bracelet from South Africa) in order to “clear” the metal detector.
After one experience, I simply removed all of this jewelry at the SIFI office before I went over to the detention center. But even that was not enough. The one piece of jewelry I had not removed was a simple silver wedding band that I wear by itself when I travel. Suddenly, after being allowed to enter the center wearing this band, I was told that it, too, had to be removed.
At first, I balked at removing my wedding band. But in the end, I took it off because if I hadn’t, I would not have been allowed to get in and help those I came all the way across the country to try and help. My act of resistance was to comply with their simple entry rules so I could try to find a way around the labyrinth of complicated regulations that comprise immigration laws. This would allow me to help those immigrants whose only real “crime” is wanting a better life for themselves and their families.
I didn’t expect not to be allowed to even go to the bathroom without a guard to escort me. The doors to the bathrooms were all locked, even though this area was in a section of the center that the detainees were never allowed to enter.
I didn’t expect that I could not meet face to face with detainees in an interview room, without any barriers between us, because, after all, Stewart is supposedly a “detention center” and not a prison. Instead, I was escorted to a small room. I had to use a phone on the wall to speak to the detainee on the other side of a thick glass window.
I didn’t expect that it would be difficult to speak with the detainees because the phone cord was so short that I could not easily cradle the phone to hear them, while I tried to take notes at the same time.
I didn’t expect a guard walking by to look into my half of the interview room through a thin glass panel on the door, and say that my interpreter could not stand while using the phone. Or that when I finished with my interview and left the interview room on my own, I would be chastised and told that I “had to just wait” until a guard walked by the room so she could escort me 15 feet to the closed gate, between me and the door to the lobby.
(Sometimes during the week, after waiting 10 or more minutes, I left and walked to the gate anyway; of course, I knew I was being seen via the cameras and someone would come to open the gate. It was a small act of resistance.)
I didn’t expect that the guards would be quite brusque and off-putting at first, yet after a few days would joke with me about what skin care products I used, because they didn’t believe I was 62. Or hearing one guard tell the family of a detainee who was being released on bond that they had to leave because it was 5 p.m., then kindly offer to let them call her at 6 p.m. to tell them when he was going to be released. That way, they could be in the parking lot when he walked out.
I didn’t expect to learn that, unlike defendants in the criminal courts, detainees do not have a constitutional right to legal counsel, nor is the government obligated to provide an attorney if they cannot afford one. Because the government does not provide them with an attorney and most detainees cannot afford an attorney on their own, fewer than 10 percent of detainees have a lawyer to advise and represent them in hearings before an immigration judge.
I didn’t expect to learn that the detainee has the burden of proof, not the government. Or that the government would suddenly move up the date of a “credible fear” interview before his attorney had met with him about the interview. A “credible fear” interview is the key to a successful asylum claim for immigrants who have either presented themselves at a port of entry or are caught in the “border area.” It allows them to show that there is a significant possibility that they will win their asylum cases, based on a believable fear of persecution or torture if they are sent back to their home countries.
I didn’t expect that even if an attorney is present during a “credible fear” interview, she is not allowed to object to questions, advise her client not to answer or, save for a closing statement, say anything during the interview.
I didn’t expect to see such utter dejection and complete lack of hope in the faces of the detainees as they sat alone at a hearing, in front of the immigration judge and the government attorney, while the interpreter translated complex and complicated legalese that they clearly did not understand. I didn’t expect to see how their shoulders would slump and they would look down, rather than at me, when I met with them.
I didn’t expect to see a detainee just shake his head, sigh, and shrug his shoulders when I explained that if his wife didn’t submit a certain document by the next day, he would be deported. I didn’t expect to see them give up fighting to stay here with their families, resigning themselves to deportation, often to a country they had not seen for decades. I didn’t expect to see so many with a haunting emptiness in their eyes as they faced the inevitable outcome.
Most of all, I didn’t expect what I heard while sitting in the arrival lobby in front of a young woman with her two daughters, one about 9 years old and the other maybe 4. The older daughter was teaching her younger sister the Pledge of Allegiance, and telling her that “maybe it will help daddy if they hear us say this.”
What I did expect that week in Lumpkin was that it would be transformative, and it was.
I can’t wait to go back and do it again.
Attorney Michal Longfelder is the founder and principal of Employment Matters, a company based in California and New York that investigates and mediates workplace conflicts.
She recently traveled to Georgia to volunteer for the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), a project of the SPLC that enlists and trains volunteer lawyers to provide free legal representation to detained immigrants facing deportation proceedings in the Southeast