My husband and I visited Stewart Detention Center through El Refugio a few months ago in southwest Georgia. While there, we had the opportunity to talk with immigrants detained by ICE for a whole hour, one-on-one. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life (right up there with getting married and visiting our friends in Haiti!). It opened my eyes to new perspectives on this very difficult and relevant topic in our country today, and thus in true Lovelight stories style, I want to share what I’ve been learning with you!
First and foremost, I realize this topic is controversial and I’m not here to pick a side, but I do hope to present what I’ve learned and experienced through my personal encounter at Stewart Detention Center. Read on! You’re not going to want to miss this one.
Stewart Detention Center
Facts & Figures I learned during my visit with El Refugio:
- According to representatives at El Refugio (who coordinated our visit), “In August 2019, ICE reported more than 55,000 immigrants were currently in custody at that time. This has increased significantly since 1994 where there were only 5,000 people nationally.”
- Stewart Detention Center was built in 2004 with the intention of receiving a contract with the state of Georgia to be a regular prison. However, they received an immigration contract instead in 2006. That’s why if you search for it online you’ll find it looks like a prison, because it was built to be one.
- Detention isn’t supposed to be a prison, but Stewart is also run like a prison by a private, for-profit prison company called CoreCivic.
- Stewart holds up to 2,000 people who are either: entering the U.S. and seeking asylum, picked up by ICE after already living here, are legally here with a green card, but have committed a crime and are now in deportation proceedings (including legal permanent residents who have lived in the U.S. their entire lives). To better understand mandatory detention, read this fact sheet from the Detention Watch Network.
- According to a 2016 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Deportation rates at Stewart are some of the highest in the country. The U.S. average asylum cases accepted through the courts in the U.S. is 48%, and at Stewart it’s only 5-6%.” This is partly due to its remote location, which is located about 2.5 hours southwest of Atlanta, making it very difficult for practicing lawyers to reach the people in detention. Not to mention, the work is often provided pro bono. The location and minimal pay simply makes it difficult for lawyers to be available on a sustainable basis. In fact, “a report from the American Immigration Council found that from 2007 to 2012, only 6 percent of people at Stewart had an attorney. That's less than half the national rate for immigrants in detention.”
- There have been many reports of: isolation, abuse, spoiled food/water, substandard medical care, minimal access to legal materials, and an overall depressing environment.
What is El Refugio?
El Refugio is a ministry that offers families of people in detention a place to stay, a hot meal, and a warm welcome after a sometimes very long journey to visit their loved ones at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA.
Because of its remote location and the fact that immigrants in detention often get moved regularly, visiting families can be traveling for very long distances and there isn’t any other place for them to stay in Lumpkin.
Once they arrive at Stewart, it can be very disheartening as they are often turned away because of what they are wearing. The center doesn’t allow anything other than closed toed shoes, and long sleeve shirts and pants. If anyone isn’t wearing the appropriate clothing, they’ll be turned away. Therefore, El Refugio keeps an inventory of clothing for visitors who encounter this. We saw it happen while we were there, and the ministry was able to provide clothes so they could visit!
El Refugio also coordinates volunteer visitors (like us!) who’d like to serve and learn more about immigration in general, through visiting the hospitality home and detained individuals at Stewart. This is a very important piece of the ministry, as not every person has family or friends who can visit them. It’s a very difficult and emotional time for the detained individuals and volunteer visitors are able to bring encouragement, show support, and dish out love!
The one-on-one visit
We had to reschedule our visit 6 or 7 times, and we started to wonder whether we were even supposed to go to Stewart. After visiting, we no-longer felt like it was maybe not for us, but that instead, we were just supposed to be there on that very particular day. When it was time for the visit, our group entered the call room together and my randomly assigned person was the last one to come out for our one-on-one visit via phone across glass (just like you’d imagine in a jail). This is where the experience began to become so powerful. I picked up the phone and explained I was there because I care about his situation and I hoped that I could encourage him a bit that day. And the first thing he said to me was, “Are you a Christian?” When I replied with a “YES!”, a huge smile crept across his face and he excitedly proceeded to explain how he’d been pleading with God the week prior to send him a Christian, someone he can talk to. He explained how he felt encouraged by the fact that I was there, as sign from God that He’s directing his paths. With instant tears streaming down my face, I proceeded to explain to him how we’d rescheduled SO many times that it started to almost seem as if we weren’t meant to visit, but that I now KNOW it was because God wanted us to meet and encourage each other instead. I shared how God has called me to walk alongside people living in vulnerable situations and that I continually try to go where He’s leading. That day it was to Stewart. For anyone who’s experienced a divine moment in their life, you know without question when it happens. This was it! It was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had - We had an instant connection, and it felt as though God was wrapping his arms around us both.
Throughout our conversation he recounted 6 or 7 times in his life that people have suggested he should be a pastor, that they see his ability to minister to others. In fact, the first person to ever tell him he should be a pastor was named, “Stephanie”! Sound almost too crazy to be true? Maybe, but I don’t think so. He proceeded to explain how he turned away from the idea of ministering, because pastors don’t make enough money in his home country and he needed to support himself or a family. He decided to pursue money over ministry, but that started to change when he came to Stewart. God has been pursuing his heart and he’s realized he was made to be a pastor and share the Gospel with others. He’s even been sharing the word with people in detention! How beautiful!
He also shared a little bit about his journey here, trekking across multiple countries and an ocean…He said the travel was grueling, and if he knew what it would be like when he got here, he wouldn’t have come. He shared how the food isn’t enough and how difficult it’s been to access legal help for his asylum case. He further explained how horrible it’s been living in detention and with a sense of desperation, he told me that being sent to his home country would be the worst thing that could happen to him. He’d rather die here than have to go back, because he believes he’ll die there anyway. Yet, despite his desperation, he was so full of life and joy. As I wrote in my journal, “His faith was oozing out of him!”. He spoke about his hopes of being a pastor and missionary around the world - another connecting point! I told him I was going to Haiti in a month to see our friends again, and we talked about what that was like. He also asked for a Christian song book he’s been wanting for a really long time and was curious about mission courses he can take while still detained.
By the time we were done, I asked him for permission to share the overall sentiment of his story and he urged me to “Please share my story with anyone it can help”. I believe we were meant to meet that day, and I received just as much or more, encouragement from the encounter too! We’ve since kept in touch via written letters monthly and I’ve received full pages in response from him each time. He let me know El Refugio sent him the song book he requested, and he’s still awaiting word on his asylum case. Each letter is full of encouragement TO ME and words from the gospel! It simply astounds me how faith-filled he is, and it’s a true blessing to witness his unwavering faith through such difficulty and uncertainty!
At the end of the day, I don’t know what my opinion is on immigration policy or anything of the sort, but I’m thankful to have this personal experience open my eyes to different perspectives. I’m thankful to have the opportunity to love regardless of where borders may lie…There’s two sides to this complex issue and I just hope there’s a solution that maintains dignity for all.
Unfortunately, my sweet friend was deported back to his home country in 2019...multiple people wrote in letters that were passed along to him before he left. Thank you to everyone who followed along and wrote letters! His story is just one of many.
Here's a few more ways you can dig more into this topic:
Want to be a volunteer visitor yourself? Find out if there’s a detention center near you, contact El Refugio in GA, or come with me!
Want to learn more about the topic of detained immigrants and Stewart? These articles were eye-opening for me.
- For a report by the Detention Watch Network, exposing conditions at Stewart: ACLU and Georgia Detention Watch’s Immigration Detention Fact Sheet
- For a CNN report on Stewart and the need El Refugio is serving: Inside America’s Hidden Border
- For a great overview of the situation, photos of Stewart, and short case studies of actual detainees: Welcome to Stewart Detention Center, the Black Hole of America’s Immigration System.
- For an in-depth report uncovering living conditions in six detention centers (including Stewart) from the Southern Poverty Law Center.