To get to Lumpkin, Georgia, you have to really want to be there—or be taken against your will. The highways wind southwest of Atlanta, roughly paralleling the Chattahoochee River, for 143 miles. The town is parked on red clay amid tangles of kudzu, its square a cluster of shuttered storefronts next to an abandoned gas station, where the only visible signs of life on a mid-morning in early January were at the courthouse and a store labeled Christian Gun Sales (motto: “Guns Cheaper Than Dirt”).
Lumpkin’s thriving business is a few miles down the road, behind rows of razor wire. The Stewart Detention Center is where most of the undocumented men picked up in the Southeast by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) get imprisoned. Visiting is risky and daunting for the detainees’ families; most don’t have the means to make the journey to Lumpkin, and the motels give out 26 miles away in Columbus. So a dozen of us from Circle of Mercy, my faith community in Asheville, North Carolina, made the trip. Amilcar Valencia of El Refugio, a courageous and compassionate ministry of hospitality and advocacy a mile from the prison gate, warmly welcomed us and briefed us on Stewart and the men he selected for us to visit there.
After a two-hour wait, two guards ushered me to the visiting area. Others in our group had to wait up to three hours more before one of the five tiny visiting cubicles available to the facility’s approximately 1,800 detainees was open. Francisco and I spoke on phones, separated by a wall of plexiglass. He told me he didn’t know until he was 19 that he was “illegal.” He had other things to worry about—especially a frequently absent father and a regularly abusive mother. They brought him here from Mexico when he was 3 years old. He was shocked when he found out that, for all those years of his growing up, he wasn’t a U.S. citizen.
Francisco has made some mistakes in his life; he admitted that to me right off. He’s been thrown into an unmerciful and unforgiving system, and his mistakes have cost him a lot more than ours generally cost us. I tried to encourage him to be forgiving toward himself, to remember that he is a beloved child of God, whose grace is abundant. But I knew it was a hard sell.
Francisco spent most of our visit talking about his namesake 8-year-old son, whom he calls Cisco. Before he was detained by ICE, Francisco looked his young son in the eyes and said, “I want you to know that I will always love you. If I can’t be with you, it’s not because I don’t love you. I want to be with you more than anything in the world. And I want you to remember that I will always love you, no matter what.” His voice cracked as he told me.
Francisco is worried about his son’s safety. He fears that his ex-wife is abusing Cisco, as he himself felt abused by her. She used to let Francisco call and talk to his son every week. But now she has blocked his calls. He assumes that she would destroy any letters he would send, before they ever got to his son, so he doesn’t bother to write. It breaks Francisco’s heart.
He doesn’t complain, but when I ask, he says that the food is bad—often nothing more than rotten potatoes—and that it’s hard to get medical attention. His experience is borne out by multiple reports from groups including Detention Watch Network, ACLU, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Project South, and even the federal Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General. All have decried spoiled food, mistreatment of detainees by staff, overuse of solitary confinement, lack of basic hygiene supplies and hot water, and chronic human rights abuses in our nation’s immigrant detention centers—and Stewart is consistently among the worst.
Stewart has one doctor and seven nurses on staff, a ratio of one nurse for every 250 prisoners. Detainees have had to wait for days, even weeks, for treatment. Sometimes the delays are fatal. Roberto Medina-Martinez died at the age of 39 at Stewart in March 2009 of a treatable heart infection. An investigation related to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Georgia blamed his death on negligent conduct by Stewart staff. Thirty-three-year-old Yulio Castro Garrido died two weeks ago of pneumonia, a disease that is rarely fatal in one so young, and immigrant rights advocates are calling for an investigation. More than 177 people have died in U.S. immigration detention centers in the last 15 years.
Nowhere is a profit-over-people philosophy more intense than in these detention centers. Motivation is strong for CoreCivic, the private corporation that runs Stewart, to keep beds filled and cut corners wherever it can. Maximizing its profit margin means skimping on food and medical care, repairs and toilet paper—and apparently on dignity as well. As non-U.S. citizens, detainees lack basic guarantees of due process and redress for the company’s many shameful violations.
Among the many people who would rather not make the long journey to Lumpkin are lawyers. And so Stewart has the highest deportation rate in the country. More than 98 percent of Stewart detainees are eventually deported. Since his detainment, Francisco has had three lawyers—or, more accurately, three predators masquerading as lawyers—who took thousands of dollars of his money and did nothing for him; throngs of people are out there ready to prey on the vulnerability of desperate immigrants. Now, lacking other resources or options, Francisco plans to represent himself at his upcoming court hearing, hoping to convince the judge that his son needs him for protection. But he knows what he’s up against.
He’s not officially a Dreamer. No one told him about DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era policy that provides protection from deportation for those who were brought here illegally by their parents when they were children—until he was too old to qualify. But, except for his official status, he shares everything in common with the 800,000 young immigrants who are being used as political pawns by the president and Republicans in Congress. He holds his breath with them as they await their fate, their future precarious in the hands of a government that has been vocal about its racism, antipathy, and disdain.
On our way home after our visits, our group stopped to visit the Casa Alterna community in LaGrange. The piñata party in celebration of Three Kings Day/Epiphany with an energetic throng of neighborhood children was exactly what we needed to end our trip. But, woven among the abundant laughter and joyful singing was the sad poignancy of a story to which the children could relate only too well. Anton Flores, co-founder of Casa Alterna, asked them where Mary and Joseph ran with the infant Jesus when Herod issued his death threat against all children. Anticipating their response, he said, “No, not the United States.” That young Jewish Palestinian couple and their baby who fled to Egypt likely would not find safety or shelter here, even if they could slip past the immigration officials.
On the table before us was a huge, neighborhood-sized King Cake, topped with dried fruit and hiding a few tiny figurines of baby Jesus inside, which all the children hoped they would find in their piece. Anton reminded us that the knife that cut the cake was the symbol of Herod, bringing down destruction on the children in his search for Jesus. I thought of Cisco, who will likely not be spared the devastation of separation from his father. And of Francisco, who will be unmercifully wrenched away from his son and the only home he has ever known.
Francisco does not remember Mexico. He does not know anyone there. What he does know is that the country suffers for being considered our “backyard,” a source of cheap labor for U.S. companies, a place where poverty is great and opportunity is limited, where despair and violence and corruption have erupted in response.
“I’m determined to make the best of it,” he told me as our visit was coming to a close. Looking down he added, barely audibly, “But it’s going to be hard.” I asked him, apart from being separated from Cisco, what will be the hardest thing. Francisco looked into my eyes, shook his head, and said, “I guess I’m going to have to learn Spanish.”