Lumpkin, Ga. - A small yellow house sits right off Main Street with a short dirt driveway wrapping around to the back. A small car parked outside has a bumper sticker that reads, “No Human Being is Illegal.”
Entering through the backdoor, a metal road sign leans against the wall that reads “El Refugio.” Empty, large bags that once held unroasted coffee beans from all over the world hang on the walls, accompanied by maps of South America and various other parts of the world.
A kind man reaches out his hand and introduces himself as Amilcar Valencia. He came to the U.S. in 2010 on a fiancé visa, married his wife Katie Valencia two months later and obtained a green card shortly after. Amilcar Valencia became a citizen this year after being in the U.S. for five years.
For many of those being detained, their first impression of America is Stewart Detention Center, a small building with tiny windows surrounded by barbed wire with a row of prisoner buses lined up against a wall of thick trees that hide the facility from the outside world.
Immigration lawyer Azadeh Shahshahani said it is like Stewart is trying to hide the facility's existence.
Katie Valencia, Amilcar’s wife, briefs a group of volunteers from Emory University in Atlanta. She gives the statistic of more than a 90 percent deportation rate. The 1750 bed facility, more like purgatory, is currently holding nearly 1900 detainees awaiting their fate.
Most of the detainees are brought here straight from the border. Nearly 95 percent of immigrants have no legal representation and have no knowledge of U.S. law. Yet, they must represent themselves in Stewart’s local, internal court.
They have access to a library where they can learn the legal system. But first, they must learn to read in English.
Emory University student Debra Kozowski speaks up as the orientation is coming to an end, asking if anyone would partner with her during the visit today, because her Spanish is quite rusty.
“Things like this are intentionally hidden and kept away from people like me,” Kozowski said. After a recent trip to Uganda, Kozowski realized there is a part of her that is drawn to uncomfortable situations.
After seeing how big the world is outside of her backyard, Kozowski finds herself wanting to understand different cultures and help those who face unjust circumstances here in the U.S.
Amilcar Valencia continues the orientation. Many of the detainees come to America seeking refuge and a chance at life in the land of the free.
“They may be here escaping violence in Central America,” Amilcar Valencia said.
A recent report by the Detention Watch Network (DWN) described the conditions as “inhumane.” Meals were suspended. Hunger strikes occurred. Religious services were reportedly suspended.
“We are deeply concerned for people currently detained at Stewart,” Silky Shah, co-director of the Detention Watch Network, said. “As communication in and out of the facility has been limited, it has been difficult to monitor the situation.”
The first round of volunteers pack into an SUV and make the drive to Stewart.
The 4-minute drive brings you to CCA Road. All the signs guiding you to the facility are in Spanish when you enter and translated in English as you exit.
This makes sense. If one is leaving, most likely they are either a legal English-speaking person on their way home, or an immigrant being deported and at that point, the sign reading “Immigration Law Offices” no longer applies.
“Because of policy of enforcement, they are really going after those who may have old convictions,” Katie Valencia said. Many detainees are being held for past crimes that they have already served time for.
The Washington Post reported in 2013 that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began to go after legal immigrants for crimes that could affect their legal status. One way to justify detaining immigrants is the “bed mandate” that requires 34,000 beds be filled per day in immigration facilities throughout the country.
Detainees have no control when they are in Stewart. When people visit, this is an opportunity for the detainees to speak their mind.
“There are just a couple of things they control,” Amilcar Valencia said. “This is one of them.”
Volunteer Jason Muhlenkamp has visited Stewart many times. He speaks of one detainee he has visited on multiple occasions.
“I will practice my Spanish on him, and he will practice his English on me,” Muhlenkamp said. Though he knows little of their language, he knows a light needs to be shown on the issue of immigration in America.
On the visit today, Muhlenkamp met with a 23-year-old detainee from El Salvador who fled to America seeking asylum after his life was threatened.
“He was caught up in the wrong political party,” Muhlenkamp said.
After being extorted on a daily basis, the young, well-spoken college graduate decided he needed to flee for his life. He fled to America, was detained at the border and, like many others, will wait for the court to decide his fate.
Some are deported in weeks; some in years. For families and friends who do visit, “This is most likely the last time they will see their loved ones for a very long time”, Katie Valencia said. “They most likely are saying goodbye.”