As deportations escalate, lawyers are stepping up defense of immigrants in rural Georgia

Attorneys are working to provide legal assistance to immigrants detained at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. (Photo via

Even before the Trump administration took office and tightened immigration enforcement, the South was seen as a country that was particularly tough on immigrants facing deportation.

Immigrant detention facilities in the region, many of which are privately run, have been accused of abuse and substandard, prison-like conditions. Immigration judges in the region are among the strictest in the country. And perhaps most critically, immigrants held in detention facilities in the South, many of which are isolated and just hours from the nearest metropolitan area, are worryingly lacking legal representation.

Now, as the need for legal defense for immigrants is greater than ever, attorneys across the region are answering the call to provide legal assistance to immigrants caught in the country’s deportation machine.

One site where legal capacity is desperately needed and is currently being promoted is the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, which houses both a detention center and an immigration court. Stewart is operated by Nashville-based private prison company CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America.

Marty Rosenbluth, an immigration attorney at North Carolina-based Polanco Law, recently opened an office in Lumpkin to better represent clients sent there by immigration officials after being detained in the Carolinas.

“They move people from North Carolina and South Carolina to Stewart so quickly that we almost never have a chance to talk to anyone before they are relocated,” Rosenbluth said.

In his view, this rapid relocation of immigrants to remote detention centers is part of the government’s strategy to facilitate more deportations. Stewart is located in rural southwest Georgia, a two-and-a-half hour drive from Atlanta and 45 minutes from the nearest hotel, making it difficult for attorneys to be on site. Inmates who are fortunate enough to have legal representation often have lawyers who attend trials or communicate with clients via Skype. Most detainees, who typically do not speak English and have no legal experience or training, must navigate the complex deportation process alone.

Many never get around to speaking to a lawyer, Rosenbluth noted. “They lose by default,” he said.

Stewart has an extremely low rate of legal representation for inmates. According to Shadow Prisons, a joint report by several legal and immigrant advocacy groups, only 6 percent of immigrants detained at Stewart have legal representation, compared to the national rate of 14 percent. Of those seeking asylum in Stewart, only 6 percent received relief, compared to 48 percent nationally.

Legal representation is a crucial factor in the outcome of immigration cases – and for those who would face violence and persecution in their home country, it can be a matter of life and death. A study found that women and children in deportation proceedings were 14 times more likely to remain in the country if they had legal representation.

Expansion of legal defense at Stewart

In addition to Rosenbluth’s efforts, Stewart’s legal standing is being expanded through a new project called the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative. A joint initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the American Immigration Council, the Innovation Law Lab, and the American Immigration Representation Project, it aims to recruit pro bono attorneys from across the region and throughout the United States Country to bring together legal advice for Stewart prisoners. Organizers hope to eventually bring it to other detention centers in the region.

A week after the project was announced, about 250 attorneys had already signed up to volunteer, according to Dan Werner, a senior SPLC regulatory attorney who is leading the initiative.

“The whole [deportation] “The system relies on moving people through the system very quickly, and this project is designed to address that,” Werner told Facing South. “This will slow or stall the system and force a really in-depth investigation.” How can you develop immigration reforms that make sense and protect due process rights and respect human rights?

A key component of the project is to send court observers to the immigration court in Stewart to document any violations of ethical standards established by the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). A similar court watch effort recently launched by SPLC and Emory Law School uncovered significant problems in immigration courts in Atlanta, including judges making adverse comments toward immigrants. SPLC and Emory Law School sent a letter to EOIR on March 2 outlining violations and recommending reforms.

Beyond legal representation and oversight, Werner hopes the new Southeast Initiative will bring people’s individual stories to light and combat the vilification of immigrants that has increased under the new administration.

“By collecting stories of people who have been imprisoned and showing them as people who have families, who are our neighbors and friends, people with problems, some people who are fleeing persecution, [we’re] “I’m really trying to humanize the impact of these draconian policies,” Werner said.