Hidden away in the woods of southwest Georgia sits the euphemistically named Stewart Detention Center. The facility, owned and operated by the for-profit corporation CoreCivic, holds men that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is seeking to deport.
Located just outside the tiny rural community of Lumpkin, Stewart is surrounded by two tall fences topped with razor wire. Access is severely limited. No one is allowed a contact visit. Lawyers may not bring a laptop or even a phone into the facility. It is a prison, plain and simple.
Inside are 1,900 adult men. Some were picked up near our Southern border. Some were arrested in the towns where they had lived peacefully for years.
Earlier this month, I spent a week working as a volunteer lawyer at Stewart as part of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s new Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative. The initiative has a small permanent staff in Lumpkin living in a double-wide trailer, along with SPLC lawyers who travel back and forth from Atlanta, 140 miles away, and a rotating number of volunteer lawyers.
I learned some immigration law on the fly, interviewed detainees, and appeared at two hearings. Most days lasted 10 hours.
The work was intense. It was also deeply disturbing.
All the detainees I had contact with were attempting to escape from violence and poverty in Central America. None had a criminal record. All were under the age of 30. One man had been shot in the abdomen by a drug dealer. Another had two cousins murdered by a narcotics gang. All the men I interviewed had family members in the United States who were willing to take them in and be responsible for them.
American folklore refers to our ongoing experiment in democratic equality as a “melting pot.” Inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty is a plaque that famously declares “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
No longer do those words ring true.
Now, we talk of building a border wall. Our government arrests the huddled masses yearning to be free of insufferable violence, and we return them to an uncertain future.
While I was at Lumpkin, I could not help but think of my grandparents, who fled Russian oppression before World War I, and of my father and his family, who found sanctuary from Hitler in America in the late 1930s. If my family members had sought refuge and freedom in the America of 2017 they would have been unceremoniously returned to the hell they were escaping.
The experience brought home to me in a most personal way what had been an abstract political discussion about our nation’s immigration policies. My conclusion: Something must change.
I urge lawyers who can spare a week, along with non-lawyers who speak Spanish, to consider volunteering for this project. You might save a life.
Elden Rosenthal is an attorney in Portland, Oregon, and a member of the SPLC Board of Directors.