COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) – Rita Ellis got the call around 1:30 p.m. one afternoon.
Four men have been released from the Stewart Detention Center and should be in Columbus in less than an hour. The call was expected but came earlier than usual. A mass text ran out and the organizing and scrambling began.
Ellis and five other volunteers loaded their cars with newly stocked backpacks and laptops to buy tickets for the men’s next stop. A helper stopped just down the street at a Burger King to pick up chicken sandwiches. Still warm in the foil, the released men would soon sit outside on benches and eat and talk between bites. It wouldn’t be long before the groome shuttle station filled with the sounds of their hasty conversations.
It’s a call Ellis received a number of times in 2021. Just four months out of the year, she and other Paz Amigo volunteers in Columbus have helped more men get out of federal immigration custody for their family and friends elsewhere. If the pace continues, it will be the busiest year of the non-profit organization since its inception.
The past year was not without its challenges. The group looked at changing logistics and new restrictions imposed by COVID-19. But now most of the volunteers are fully vaccinated and can help.
Court orders and a change in the presidential administration appear to have increased the influx of released detainees and ushered in a busy year for groups like Paz Amigos.
“We have never seen anything like it,” said Ellis. “It’s been amazing since January.”
WHO ARE THE PEACE FRIENDS?
Paz Amigos goes back to Susan Krysak, who lives in Columbus. She helped the released men put off in the city for several years by giving them coats to keep them warm during the winter months. Their efforts ultimately inspired Ellis to found Paz Amigos or “Peace Friends” in early 2019.
Some inmates have loved loved ones who travel to Lumpkin to pick them up. But often the men (and women during the pandemic) who are released but not deported by the ICE often end up in Columbus.
Some are on bail and probation and are still facing immigration tribunals. You must still appear in future proceedings. Others are granted asylum directly or they are given green cards that indicate legal permanent residence status.
Paz Amigos has developed a relationship with Stewart. Detention center staff call Ellis or other members of the organization to tell them how many people are coming to Columbus and when they are expected to arrive.
Volunteers provide meal and supplies to those newly laid off. The families or other non-profit organizations fund the travel expenses, but Paz Amigos helps with the booking of the trips. They help the men, or amigos, as the group calls them, to find accommodation for the night when they are due to leave the next day.
In 2019 the group supported 562 Amigos. That number fell slightly to 363 in 2020 as only two or three volunteers were able to help with the pandemic. Only four months a year 459 people received help from Paz Amigos.
2020 AND THE BEGINNING OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
The majority of rescuers fell into high risk health categories, so Zoom video conferencing was critical to the planning. But those who were able to help personally took over the management in spring 2020.
COVID-19 was and is a problem at the Stewart Detention Center. As of April 11, 493 inmates had tested positive for the virus and four COVID-19 deaths were confirmed. Both are the largest sums for an ICE system in the country.
Monica Whatley, one of the volunteers who saw an increasing role in the early days of the pandemic, said plastic gloves and double masking had become norms.
“We were really pioneers in a new field that no one had seen before,” said Whatley. “We had kind of a learning curve on the way to (how) figuring out how to share a phone and how to maintain reasonable social distance while talking on the phone in the middle of a busy bus stop.”
For a time, greyhound buses and groome shuttles did not leave Columbus. Members of Paz Amigos have successfully campaigned for CoreCivic, the group that operates the internment camp on behalf of ICE to bypass the city and go straight to Atlanta. There were even some crisis days when Whatley drove the men and women to Atlanta himself.
For those with trips planned for the next day, Paz Amigos has signed contracts with two local hotels, giving the men their own place for the night. In pre-pandemic times, volunteers would have opened their homes to the recently released immigrants.
“It’s very rewarding. It’s very humble. It’s also very annoying that I’m the one to see them first when they get off, ”Whatley said of the job. “It shouldn’t be like that. They should come home to the arms of their loved ones. “
THE CHANGES IN THE ICE FARMS
Federal court orders, a new presidential administration, and fewer border crossings in mid-2020 are contributing to higher numbers of released prisoners and a decline in the prison population, according to federal reports, Ellis and others who work with immigrants incarcerated in Stewart.
In April 2020, a federal judge ordered ICE to quickly identify and release all people in custody who are at increased risk for COVID-19. There were compelling reasons to keep these detainees in custody and the agency needed to demonstrate that it was complying with proper public health protocols. Ellis said she noticed that releases began to surge in November 2020.
Marty Rosenbluth, an immigration attorney in Lumpkin, Georgia, said another factor was the Biden administration’s instruction to review all cases to see who could be released and monitored instead of being held in detention centers.
In February, Tae Johnson, acting director of immigration and customs in the United States, issued guidelines for government officials setting guidelines for custody and enforcement that were influenced by several factors, including the COVID-19 Pandemic. Starting in March, detainees and their representatives who believe they are not complying with ICE’s enforcement guidelines can request a review of the case.
However, 160 immigrant rights and legal counseling organizations said the case review process “was utterly inadequate because it routed detained immigrants’ requests for release to biased ICE field office leaders who prefer to use their authority to keep detainees “read a statement from the National Immigrant Justice Center.
“Anyone who does not pose a clear threat to the community will either be released pending their hearing or ICE will review their cases and decide whether or not to drop their cases,” said Rosenbluth.
Border crossings fell in mid-2020 and the number of detainees fell to 16,377, according to the Immigration Detention Ombudsman’s report to Congress.
But the number of intersections is increasing again. In March 2021, border officials arrested 171,000 migrants trying to cross the southern border illegally, a 15-year monthly high, the Wall Street Journal reports.
National changes have also resulted in a decline in the Stewart Detention Center’s population. Data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement shows that the average daily population was just over 1,900 in fiscal 2019.
By 2021, that number had dropped to just over 700. When Paz Amigos spoke to Stewart staff in early April, there were 293 inmates, Ellis said.
“We can’t say they are unwinding, but their numbers have fallen sharply,” she said. “That’s a huge drop.”
Most of the released prisoners supported by Paz Amigos came in March, a total of 219, or about seven men a day. April has proven to be a little slower in the first 12 days (84). Among the youngest were the four men the Amigos helped out in Columbus last week.
They arrived at the Groome shuttle station in the rain on April 9, just after 2 p.m. It was a smaller group than the volunteers were used to seeing.
The men came from Bangladesh, Cameroon, Cuba and Eritrea. They wore black cloth or blue face masks, but they had no laces or belts when they arrived in Columbus. These were taken when they first entered Stewart.
Dan Ginter, one of the volunteers, began handing out supplies and treats for the long trip to another location.
“We have personal hygiene, T-shirts, underwear and socks in it,” said the 72-year-old and opened one of the filled rucksacks. “Usually they take theirs off and throw them away. With the bag you can store your things and papers there. “
Then the phone calls and the clatter of computer keys began as the volunteers worked to book travel tickets for the men. Those who couldn’t speak English relied on Spanish-speaking volunteers to translate and communicate for them. Those who did not want to speak or were still in the middle of an immigration case and worried about how talking to a journalist might affect their further case.
“It’s a traumatizing experience,” said Michelle Fierro, a volunteer and translator. “These are people who are missing important milestones in their lives and families, you know. Even if you speak the language, you are a person decompressing from all this trauma and now you don’t know what to do or where to go. Most of them have never lived in the United States. “
None of the four men have spent time in the United States, Ellis said. They are asylum seekers and are fleeing their homeland because of previous persecution or fear of abuse that is linked to part of their identity – race, religion, political opinion, nationality or belonging to a certain social group. All of her time in America had been in federal immigration detention.
All tickets are booked before 3:00 p.m. Three of the men went to Texas and the fourth to New York, where friends or family had to find them. Her first stop was the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.
Another group like Paz, Casa Alterna, greeted the men at the Atlanta airport to make sure they made their flights.
Before getting into the van, the men posed with volunteers for selfies to commemorate their release. The men wave through the dark windows as they settle into their seats.
Some were still in court. Her fate was uncertain and her American travels were only just beginning.