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. Continue reading