Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., is a large, for-profit facility, supported by our tax dollars. It was cited in an extensive 2017 report for human and civil rights abuses, and its immigration court is known for denying detainees bail, asylum or other relief.
When I recently traveled to Stewart to see for myself, the hopelessness hung over it like a shroud.
Most detainees are innocent of all but minor crimes. (Crossing the border illegally is a misdemeanor, overstaying a visa is not a crime, and applying for asylum is legal.) Some have completed a criminal sentence, but many have never been charged with any crime. Yet they are treated with contempt, incarcerated for long periods without due process and denied many of the protections afforded criminals.
Our constitutional rights apply to migrants on U.S. soil, whatever their status. But what is happening at Stewart and elsewhere in the detention system bears little resemblance to the principles of justice in the Constitution.
Many of the large detention centers have been privatized and are managed at a significant profit. The operation of Stewart is contracted to a corporation called Core Civic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America.
In the fourth quarter of 2018 Core Civic posted a net adjusted income of $48.1 million, according to its website. Between 2002 and 2012 the company spent $18 million lobbying members of Congress for Homeland Security appropriations.
We visited Stewart out of compassion and to bear witness to injustice. We cannot offer legal or financial help, so there is little motivation for detainees to lie to us.
If anything, fear that conversations are monitored might restrain them. Visitors are not allowed to take notes but must rely on our recollections to share these stories.
(In my case, that meant jotting down what I saw and heard while the memories were fresh as soon as I returned to my car.)
Hector came to North Carolina without documentation at age 17 and immediately got a job. He was employed 13 years at the same company, supporting his wife and children.
One cold morning Hector was headed to work when ICE detained him. After removing his jacket to handcuff him, the agents drove him several freezing miles with windows down to a local detention jail. Officers applauded themselves openly for how many they had caught that day, and one laughed as he kicked away Hector’s medication. After two days he was shackled and loaded onto a bus for the 10-hour drive to Stewart.
Detainees said they were not given food or water, although they could see bottled water on the crowded, hot bus. They were not allowed to use the toilet. An officer told them he had just cleaned the toilet and they would get it dirty. He audibly flushed and asked how they liked “my toilet.” Some could not help urinating on themselves.
At midday the bus stopped at a fast-food restaurant. One of the agents strolled down the aisle of the bus eating his meal, saying how good his food was and if they ever got out they should order Meal No. 4.
Hector had been at Stewart over three months. His sadness was evident. His face compared with his picture ID showed he has lost significant weight. He misses and worries about his family. They cannot afford bail or an attorney.
Those who talked with Hector were disturbed by the cruelty. But the most devastating part of Hector’s story was the searing pain of a broken family.
Mufeed grew up in the Middle East. Twenty years ago, our government granted him asylum due to dangerous conditions in his country.
In 2017 his mother developed breast cancer. As he said, “She gave me life. I had to go to her.” He did not understand he would likely not be allowed to re-enter. Realizing he was still not safe there, he decided to return to the U.S. His family was permitted to return; Mufeed could not. He sent them on and then began searching for a way to follow.
Eventually he made his way to the U.S. but was soon picked up by ICE and sent to Stewart, where he has been for seven months awaiting a hearing.
Mufeed is one of the lucky detainees who earn $3 a day to supplement the meager food and use the telephone. He expressed his fear of being deported back to the danger from which the U.S. once granted him asylum.
The last thing Mufeed said to me was, “Family is everything. If I were single, it would not be so bad. But they are tearing apart families. A family is like a body. If one part is wounded, the whole body suffers.” At the cubicles where we visited the detainees, a word carved into the visitors’ side of the frame captured the pain of Mufeed and Hector. The word: “Daddy.”
Marty Rosenbluth, a UNC-Chapel Hill law school graduate who is based in Raleigh, is the only immigration attorney who regularly represents Stewart detainees.
Marty met with us at our orientation at the nonprofit El Refugio, which supports families and other visitors. He told us about conditions at Stewart (a “hellhole” “designed to break the human spirit”), the dismal prospects for most of the detainees, and the injustices routinely perpetuated at the immigration court there.
Marty has had few successes. When someone asked how he keeps going, Marty said his clients are his starfish. In that parable a child walks down the beach picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back. When a man asks why she bothers when she can’t possibly make a difference to so many, the child tosses another one back and replies, “I made a difference to that one.”
Marty told us about a high school boy from North Carolina detained at Stewart. Just shy of graduating, he was picked up by ICE. With no defense to deportation, Marty hoped to get him bail so he could finish high school before being deported.
The boy was beloved by his schoolmates and they rallied around him. At his bail hearing, Marty presented a petition signed by nearly every student in the school. Teachers and the principal wrote letters. The judge was unmoved until Marty offered a letter from the boy’s ROTC instructor. He was granted bail, but it was set at thousands of dollars more than he could pay. His mother went to the community for help and raised every penny. Marty said he could go a long time on that small victory.
Marty reminded me of another Jewish man who left his home and devoted his life to advocating for compassion and justice for the “despised and rejected.” Like him, Marty is acquainted with grief. As he was leaving, I commented that my experience as an assistant public defender several years ago gave me an inkling of what those starfish meant to him. “It’s no small thing you are doing here,” I told him.
Marty smiled and said simply, “I sleep well at night.”