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I’ve Seen Firsthand the Heartbreak of ICE Detention. This Must End.

No one should be forced to spend a holiday — or any other day — jailed in a detention center, away from their family.

The Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.

Five hours into the dark, rainy drive, Ana Hernandez and Edwin Loredo laugh about how they’ve never seen the sun in Georgia. It’s their third trip in as many months, and every time, it storms the whole way — nearly nine hours — from their home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

Ana’s younger brother, Carlos Hernandez, was transferred to Stewart Detention Center in Georgia shortly after being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on August 13, 2019, and although this is Ana’s and Edwin’s third trip, it is the first for their 15-year-old daughter, Abby, and Abby’s 7-year-old cousin, Aymee. There is nothing funny about the rain that has been pouring down since Ana left her sonogram appointment late in the afternoon, but the laughter lifts the children’s spirits and helps to ease tension about the dangerous driving weather.

A couple of months ago, I joined friends of Carlos’s family to work on his deportation defense, but this is my first time meeting Ana, Edwin and the kids. Packed five to a borrowed Hyundai hatchback with the windshield wipers flapping full force, we coast through a stretch of Georgia highway so dark it feels like driving in a blackout. I ask the girls to tell me about their uncle.

Aymee says that he is very nice. Her voice is soft, with some of the r’s not fully formed, and she has big, brown eyes and a button nose. Putting her cellphone away, Abby adds, “We’re very close. He’s a private person, but he tells me things he wouldn’t tell just anybody.”

Abby’s quinceañera was in October, and I can hear in her voice how deeply she missed Carlos on the occasion. The family had started planning in January, and nobody imagined then that he wouldn’t be there. “It’s hard to celebrate without him,” Ana explains. Eventually, everyone else nods off, and I try not to wake them as I brake for numerous deer along the wood line.

In the short time I’ve been helping with Carlos’s deportation defense, this is what I’ve learned: Carlos was brought by his parents from Mexico to the United States when he was a year old. He was raised in Rocky Mount, and though he played sports and was a good student, extenuating circumstances caused him to drop out of high school; when Carlos was 14, his father was arrested for child abuse, and to protect his mother and sisters, Carlos testified at the trial. Since then, as is detailed on a GoFundMe account set up on behalf of his family, Carlos has been “the primary supporter of his mom, his sisters, and his nieces and nephews. Through his mother’s extended illness and his sister’s kidney transplant, he served as a caregiver, provider, driver, and tutor to the five children.”

Last year, after Carlos’s employer failed to pay him on time, he took $450 from the cash register. At his lawyer’s advice, he pled guilty to a misdemeanor, repaid the money — as well as $1,000 in restitution — and completed community service. As a result of his guilty plea, however, ICE targeted him for deportation. To make matters worse, after news of Carlos’s detainment spread, the family received unsigned threats upon Carlos’s life. The letters were postmarked from Mexico, and their contents suggested that they had come from a member of Carlos’s father’s family who was aware that Carlos is facing possible deportation.

Up to this point, my main focus in Carlos’s deportation defense has been trying to get his family a meeting with North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who could potentially sponsor a private bill to enable Carlos to remain in the United States. Others have asked North Carolina Democratic Representatives George Kenneth Butterfield and David Price, but no one has yet agreed to sponsor the bill. Historically, private bills have been used as a last resort for individuals not protected by existing immigration laws; the larger the number of private bills introduced during a given time frame, the greater the pressure to reform existing laws. Due to the immigration crackdown by the current administration, the need for private legislation is crucial. Although there is no guarantee that a private bill would pass, its introduction would serve as a meaningful gesture of support for migrants and separated families.

On a November 8 advocacy call, I spoke with Rene Collins, an employee in Senator Burr’s Winston-Salem office. I told her Carlos had been brought here before he was able to make his own decisions and didn’t deserve to be punished now for the circumstances of his upbringing. As though it were a simple matter, she asked why he hadn’t returned to Mexico when he was 18 to go through the proper channels. When Carlos was 18, his family was already relying on him for financial support. Going to Mexico would have required a significant amount of time off work and money to travel to a country he had no memory of.

At Collins’s suggestion, I contacted Senator Burr’s Washington, D.C., office to request a meeting — something another friend had already done on September 26. I sent an email and received a call back from Ann Woods Hawks, Senator Burr’s legislative counsel on immigration issues, who advised me to submit an electronic meeting request form. I did so on November 22, but despite repeated follow-up calls and emails, we have not yet secured a meeting. Carlos has applied for asylum, and his next hearing is in March. His family adores him, especially Abby and Aymee, who are both asleep in the back seat at 3:30 am, when we arrive at the farm where we have arranged to spend the night.

Entering Stewart Detention Center

Shortly after 10 am, Abby and I wake to Edwin knocking at the door. Within 20 minutes, we’re heading off on the 40-minute drive to Stewart County, Georgia. The rain has finally let up, but thick, grey clouds still cover most of the sky — a fitting backdrop for the large, grey silo that marks the entrance: “WELCOME TO STEWART DETENTION CENTER,” it reads, though the proclamation rings false alongside the tall, perhaps electrified, chain-link fence that leads down the drive.

Closer to the building, barbed wire trims the fence, its razor edges catching the light like tinsel, and I remember for the first time since waking that it’s Christmas Eve.

“Leave your phones in the car,” Ana instructs us. Having been here before, she knows that phones are not allowed inside. I tuck a pen, a small notebook, and my ID into my wallet and then walk toward the first of two towering gates. We stand fidgeting for half a minute or so before its motor clicks on, and we’re allowed to pass through. Then we wait a moment more at the second gate, which slides open to a short walkway lined with concrete benches. From there, we enter a dingy waiting area, and immediately, I hear coughing and sniffling. We add our names to a sign-in sheet, and the guard gives us a clipboard with forms for each of the adults to fill out.

I scan the room, counting nine adult visitors and eight children, two of whom are exhibiting signs of the flu. Next to the desk is a conveyor belt x-ray machine and a metal detector, and along the adjacent wall are an American flag and what I assume is the Georgia state flag crossed below two columns of crooked photos of smiling men, most if not all of whom are white or white-presenting. Against the wall opposite the reception desk, there is a row of lockers and a kiosk where visitors can purchase phone minutes. The time is 11:16 am.

After filling in her information, Ana hands me the clipboard, and I add my name, contact details, citizenship status and information about the person I am visiting. We place our belongings in lockers, and I ask the receptionist if I can keep my pen and pocket-sized notepad. She says no. I nod, and she adds, “We can provide you with writing materials.” Shortly thereafter, we place our belts, coats and shoes on the conveyor belt and pass through the metal detector. Once I am through, the receptionist hands me a dull, eraserless pencil stub and two tiny scraps of paper about the size of the badge I clip to my sweater, which reads: “Corrections Corporation of America, #3, visitor pass.” Each badge has a different number.

We’re led to a corridor with two bathrooms. In the women’s room, a chart codes urine colors from clear to yellow to green. “Am I Hydrated?” it asks. Back out in the hallway are two full-length mirrors, each with a plaque above it reading “Best Dressed Employee.” Between the mirrors, a poster showcases a racially diverse group of employees wearing tidy, identical uniforms, and next to that is an outdated flier for the migrant jail’s ‘70s and ‘80s themed Christmas Party at Lakepoint State Park. “Everyone is Invited,” it reads. To my right, another locked, barred gate blocks the passageway.

After everyone’s done their business, a guard unlocks the gate and leads us to a room with a row of chairs facing five cinder block stalls, each with a window, a chair and a telephone. The overhead lights flicker, and in the corner, the sick children sit at a miniature kids’ table. No one plays. On both the wall behind our chairs and the one we can see behind the glass, two posters declare, “ICE Has 0 Tolerance for Sex Abuse.” After several minutes, four men in orange or khaki scrubs are led into view behind the glass, and families crowd into the stalls.

Edwin and I hang back as Ana, Abby and Aymee approach, and Ana repeats to the girls, “Don’t cry. Don’t cry.” This is my first time seeing Carlos in person, and I notice immediately how much thinner he is now than he was in the photos Ana showed me earlier.

“Guess what we’re having,” Abby says to Carlos. I can’t hear his reply, but Ana responds that he’s going to have another niece. Then they all joke about who owes who $50.

While Ana and the girls catch up with Carlos, I ask Edwin about their Christmas plans. He tells me that back home, the family is preparing tamales, posole and ponche. If they make it back in time, they’ll exchange gifts at midnight, according to family tradition. Edwin works two jobs, and a couple of years ago, when Ana was on dialysis, he donated part of his kidney to save her.

As they both recovered from surgery, Carlos helped with Abby. In the short time I’ve known him, Edwin has been a relatively quiet person, but I can tell from the way he watches over Ana and the girls how deeply he cares for his family. Ana’s pregnancy is high risk, and Edwin is clearly trying to do everything he can to help.

After 30 minutes, Ana calls me over and hands me the phone so I can talk to Carlos. He is young and clean-cut, wearing khaki-colored scrubs and a white cross around his neck. I say “hello,” and though there is static on the line as I take the seat across from him, I hear him say, “It’s so nice to meet you.” He thanks me for the letters I’ve sent and tells me how grateful he is for everyone trying to help. I ask how he’s holding up, saying, “I know it can’t be easy.” He assures me he’s okay but admits he’s having persistent tooth pain. Along with many others, his name is on a list requesting medical attention, but so far, he’s gotten only pain relievers. “Do you know of anyone who’s seen a dentist since you’ve been here?” I ask. He doesn’t. He’s been in custody for more than four months.

I prop the phone between my shoulder and ear as I jot down notes, trying to remain as still as possible to minimize the static that cuts into the line every time the cord moves. I ask him to describe his experience so far, and he takes care to put a positive spin on things whenever possible.

“I’m lucky,” he says. “I have money in my commissary.” The guys who don’t have money risk being put in segregation for taking food from the kitchen. In my notes, I write, “30 days for 6 pc. bread.”

Carlos describes how some of the guards cuss and yell at detainees, especially those who don’t speak English, and how recently, a guard came through their living quarters with a trash bag; items like towels and shoes must be stored according to regulations, and the guard threw everything not properly put away into the bag and then tossed it all in the garbage. People are sometimes denied access to the commissary when they need supplies or to the law library when they have court the next day.

I learn that those in khaki-colored uniforms, like Carlos, lived in the U.S. prior to their detainment. The blue uniforms are for those just coming from the border, the orange for those who are coming from prison, and the red for those coming from prison with longer sentences.

I ask how often they’re permitted time outside, and he tells me they usually get a few hours each day, except shortly after his arrival, when everyone was cooped up inside for more than a month after a group held a protest in the yard. He says he doesn’t think it’s right that everyone was punished since not everyone participated in the protest. Another problem is that if it begins to rain, detainees often have to remain outside for the duration of recreation time.

Eventually, I run out of space for notes and begin to feel guilty that I’m taking time from his family. I say, “I’m sorry everything is so screwed up,” and promise to keep after Senator Burr’s office. “Everything happens for a reason,” he assures me, and I hand the phone back to Ana, wishing I shared his belief.

Seated next to Abby, Aymee displays her drawing of herself and Carlos.

Fifteen minutes later, the guard announces, “Time’s up,” and we file back into the waiting room. I sit next to Aymee while Ana adds money to Carlos’s commissary. “What’s your favorite part of Christmas?” I ask her. Her legs dangle above the floor as she thinks a moment. “My uncle,” she replies. The time is 1:23 pm, and as we emerge from the building, the sun is finally shining. Ana explains that she tries not to cry in front of Carlos because she knows he needs to stay strong.

Since we haven’t had breakfast, we stop at Denny’s, and Aymee draws a picture of herself and Carlos in pink crayon. They have sunshine-shaped eyes, and she draws a line from her stick figure to his with a cross in the middle of a heart.

Several hours into the ride home, Aymee’s mom calls, and as the little girl speaks, I transcribe her words: “When he looked at me and I looked at him, he started crying, so I think he really did miss me. He was flaco (skinny) but normal. We could not give him a hug, and we could not touch him or give him a kiss, or give him a hug. We could only talk on the phone. I feel sad, but when it was time, I said bye-bye and blew him a kiss.”

Due to the increasingly hostile immigration policies of the Trump administration, thousands of families nationwide currently find themselves in situations similar to Carlos’s. Far too often, elected officials claim to support migrants but fail to take meaningful action to address inhumane detainment and deportation practices. In 2020, let’s resolve to make sure no one is forced to spend another holiday — or any other day — jailed in a detention center, away from their family.

Please join friends of Carlos’s family in encouraging elected officials to sponsor a private bill that would enable him to remain in the United States and return to his family.

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