Immigrant detentions in Georgia rise by over 50 percent

The number of immigrants detained in Georgia has skyrocketed.

According to an analysis of federal data by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), there were 2,408 immigrants detained in the state as of mid-May – an increase of nearly 54 percent compared to May 2023.

Of all states, Georgia has the fifth-largest number of people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, second only to Louisiana among non-border states.

The growth of Georgia's detained immigrant population largely reflects national trends. In May 2023, there were about 21,300 people in immigration detention across the United States. A year later, that number was about 36,500, a 70 percent increase. During that time span, the state recorded some of the highest numbers of illegal border crossings from Mexico.

The number of new immigrants detained last month – just over 28,000 – marked the highest level since the start of fiscal year 2024 in October.

Rising detention in Georgia has raised alarm among local immigration activists, who cite health and safety concerns — so far, two people have died in ICE custody in Georgia in 2024. The number of detained immigrants could continue to rise given recent policy changes at the state and federal levels, including a new executive order from the Biden administration that restricts access to the asylum application process for border crossers.

ICE did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Who are the people in immigration detention in Georgia?

Arrests by one of two federal agencies can detain undocumented immigrants. ICE conducts arrests in the interior of the country. Border Patrol arrests people at the border after they enter illegally and then transfers at least some of them to ICE custody.

These new border crossings account for the majority of people in immigration detention.

In May, according to TRAC data, 19,654 immigrants were detained by Customs and Border Protection after being apprehended at the border. By comparison, only 8,429 immigrants were detained by ICE after entering the country.

This collapse is reflected in the composition of immigrants detained in Georgia.

During a recent visit by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to immigration court at the Stewart Detention Center — Georgia's largest immigrant detention center in the southern Georgia town of Lumpkin — most of the detainees who appeared before the judge were people who had crossed the southern border weeks earlier.

Many tried to avoid deportation by applying for asylum, a humanitarian protection for people who face certain forms of persecution or torture in their home countries.

Why are migrants being sent from the border all the way to Georgia?

Capacity considerations determine where people apprehended at the border are sent for detention.

“It can seem really arbitrary,” said Marty Rosenbluth, a Lumpkin attorney. “It's a question of where they have empty beds.”

The Stewart Detention Center houses the majority of immigrant detainees in Georgia. The facility, operated by private prison company CoreCivic, housed an average of 1,528 inmates per day in May 2024, according to TRAC, making Stewart the third-largest immigrant detention center in the entire country and the largest outside of Texas. Its total maximum capacity is over 1,900 beds.

Rosenbluth says immigration authorities may also be incentivized to send migrants to Stewart because asylum approval rates at Lumpkin's immigration court are so low. On average, judges there reject 85 percent of cases.

“If I wanted to be cynical, I would say they send people to Stewart because it has one of the lowest asylum rates in the country. And they know it. They know it's a really bad detention center where, you know, people would often rather be deported than spend five more minutes here,” he said.

Will immigration detention in Georgia be expanded further?

According to experts, the likely answer is yes.

“I wouldn't even say 'expand.' I would say 'explode,'” Rosenbluth said.

In May, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed a law requiring closer cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.

Among other things, the law requires Georgia sheriffs to notify ICE when they identify someone newly admitted to prison who may be in the country illegally. Jail guards must also comply with immigration authorities' requests to hold inmates in custody – even after they post bail – so that they can be picked up by immigration authorities.

Under these conditions, detained immigrants from Georgia without legal residency documents could systematically find themselves on the path to immigration detention and deportation.

At the national level, the Biden administration issued an executive order earlier this month that severely restricts asylum eligibility and aims to increase deportations of migrants who cross the border illegally. However, only certain nationalities can be sent back to Mexico, meaning a significant number of those deemed ineligible for asylum could be funneled into the immigration detention system to await a deportation flight.

“It is fair to say that Biden's approach to immigration is indistinguishable from that of his predecessor,” Amilcar Valencia, co-founder of El Refugio, a nonprofit that supports Stewart detainees, said in a statement.

©2024 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.