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.
A 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 in detention.
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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