To get to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., drive two-and-a-half
hours southwest from Atlanta along the interstate, which follows the curve
of the Chattahoochee River. The city of Columbus, which is 40 miles outside
Lumpkin, is your last chance to find a hotel, tap into wifi, or have reliable
cell service. After that, the landscape primarily consists of red dirt
and vine-covered trees. You’ll know you’re in downtown Lumpkin
when you see the line of closed storefronts, a sun-bleached gas station,
and a gun store.
Ten minutes outside of town on CCA Road — named for the private prison
company, Corrections Corporation of America — is Stewart, one of
the most remote immigration detention centers in the country. Stewart
has become an essential moneymaker for the area. In 2012, it provided
20 percent of the county’s revenue, money generated from the roughly 1,700
beds that are filled with men waiting to find out whether they’ll
be deported from the United States.
Stewart, and the adjoining immigration court that determines the fate of
all its detainees, has the
highest deportation rate in the country. That’s in part because the detainees at Stewart are among the least
likely to find an immigration attorney. Lawyers simply don’t live
anywhere near Lumpkin, and few are willing to take the hours-long trek
to meet with clients — clients who, for the most part, can’t
afford their services.
Last year, less than
2 percent of the men at Stewart won their cases.
In August 2015, Omar Arana Romero was hoping to be among that small minority.
He was sitting empty-handed on a wooden bench in Judge Saundra Arrington’s
courtroom alongside 10 or so other men. Arrington is one of four judges
who decide more than 6,000 Stewart immigration cases each year. That day,
Romero was afraid. It was his third time in that courtroom since he arrived
at Stewart that June, and he didn’t really know what was going on.
He doesn’t speak English and didn’t have a lawyer.
Soon a court clerk checked Romero’s plastic ID badge and motioned
for him to sit at the table in front of Arrington’s bench. Romero
put on the headphones that would allow him to hear the Spanish translator.
According to Romero, Arrington asked whether he had been able to find a
lawyer since his last hearing. No, he told her, I can’t afford one.
Well, I gave you enough time to find one, she told him, so we will proceed
with your deportation case.
Back in June 2015, Romero had shown up for his first day at a temp job
at a chemical plant 30 minutes from where he lived in Bay City, Texas.
Manual labor was nothing new for him — he had spent the last several
years supporting his three children doing everything from installing carpet
to working in a plant nursery and in the Texas oil fields. When the job
site supervisors asked for his social security card, he gave them a fake
one. But his bosses at the chemical plant found him out. They called the
cops, who soon called immigration officials.
It was the first time Romero had gotten into trouble with Immigration and
Customs Enforcement since he came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1994. He
had been arrested before — in 2003 and 2004 for drunk driving while
living in Colorado, and once, in 2012, for cocaine possession, receiving
probation for all three convictions. ICE never got involved.
Romero blames his past indiscretions in part on the trauma and pressures
that followed the violent 2004 death of his daughter, Rosa. While Romero
was at work, his then-wife beat the 6-year-old girl for misbehaving, and
she soon died of a stomach injury. His ex-wife was sentenced to 60 years
in prison. Romero’s three younger children were taken by Child Protective
Services but returned to their father a month later. He’s been their
sole parent ever since.
Standing before Judge Arrington, Romero’s voice caught in his throat.
He wanted to convince her to give him a chance, to plead for more options,
but he worried about saying something that would accidentally hurt his case.
He proceeded with caution, hoping to win the judge’s sympathy. He
told her that as a single parent, he was both mom and dad.
According to Romero, she told him to take his children with him to Mexico.
But they were born here, he replied, they are used to the United States.
When they’re 18, she told him, they can move back.
And with that, the hearing was finished. Romero went back to his bunk bed and wept.
Stewart is one of more than 40 privately run facilities across the country that holds those facing deportation. Where immigrants
end up is a matter of geography and chance. If they’re arrested
in the Southeast part of the country, there’s a good possibility
they’ll be sent to Stewart. But if those men had been sent to the
detention center in Miami, for example, their futures could be far different:
They would be
over three times more likely to get an attorney, and
10 times more likely to stay in the U.S.
And unlike in criminal cases, where defendants have a right to a lawyer
even if they cannot afford one, immigrants facing deportation have no
such guarantees. Poorer families have to either scrape together about
$7,000 for a private lawyer or hope to find a pro bono or legal aid attorney
willing to take their case for free. Which at Stewart, is nearly impossible.
September report from the American Immigration Council found that from 2007 to 2012, only 6 percent of men at Stewart had an
attorney. That’s less than half the national rate for immigrants
Having a lawyer has a huge impact on every facet of a case. Immigration
is a particularly complicated, discretionary area of law with fewer constitutional
safeguards. Without an attorney, immigrants might not know what kind of
relief they are eligible for, how to compile an application for asylum,
or how their previous criminal record could affect their immigration status.Research shows that immigrants who have lawyers are more likely to have a bond
hearing in the first place and be released while their cases are decided,
more likely to submit an application for relief, and are up to
14 times more likely to win their cases and remain in the U.S.
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