The small Georgia town has more immigration detainees than residents

LUMPKIN, Ga. — Maria Campos sits in the backseat of a car with her grandchildren, her eyes filling with tears as the immigration center comes into view.

The seven-hour drive from North Carolina to the Stewart Detention Center in a remote corner of southwest Georgia has become all too familiar. One of her sons was held here before he was deported back to Mexico last year, leaving behind his wife and children who now accompany Campos. Campos fears her other son will suffer the same fate after he was arrested when police called his friend.

“I said, 'Don't tell me that,'” she remembers telling the prison official when she learned her son had been sent to Stewart. “I can not think. I can not talk. I can not do anything. My head remains empty.”

Surrounded by barbed wire, the beige and gray detention center sits on the leafy edge of tiny Lumpkin, where imprisoned immigrants outnumber residents. These immigrants are caught up in a larger immigration court system that is facing unprecedented turmoil due to overwhelming caseloads and changing policies.

Lumpkin has few available resources – only three immigration lawyers work here full-time. There are no hotels and many shops in the city center are closed. In this vacuum, a small network has emerged to help immigrants, offering legal advice, accommodation for relatives and even fuel cards for families.

Campos doesn't have money to pay a lawyer, so her son represents himself. Campos, her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren were staying at El Refugio, a house run by volunteers who help with food and gas.

She feels helpless as she visits her son at the detention center run by private company CoreCivic for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“This place is a terrible place because not all lawyers want to go there and fight for our family members,” Campos said.

Marty Rosenbluth, one of two immigration attorneys who live in Lumpkin, knows how important it is to have an attorney physically present for detainees.

“So much happens in court, you know, body language, eye contact and all these other intangibles that you just lose when you're on the phone,” Rosenbluth said. “But the most important thing is that I think it makes the biggest difference for the customers themselves.”

He recently bought a house with guest rooms in the city to encourage lawyers to attend hearings in person.

The Southern Poverty Law Center's Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) also helped. Two staff attorneys work full-time in Lumpkin, and volunteer attorneys come for a week at a time.

The organization's phone number is distributed throughout Stewart's immigration court, and attorney Erin Argueta estimates it receives about 100 new calls per month.

Detained immigrants find it difficult to see or even talk to lawyers who live far away, they don't have access to email or faxes, and the phones sometimes don't work or are expensive, Argueta said. Communication is carried out by mail, which slows down the process of collecting documents, filling out forms in English, and translating and certifying documents.

“It's really hard for the people at Stewart to go about their daily lives, let alone meaningfully prepare their case and collect evidence,” Argueta said.

Visitors to the immigration court pass through two sliding gates set into a chain-link fence with loops of barbed wire. The first gate closes behind them before the second opens.

“I think entering this environment reinforces the desire to give people hope and the freedom to be with their families,” said SIFI attorney Matt Boles, who lives full-time in Lumpkin.

When prisoners are released, it often happens in the evening. If they are not lucky enough to have family waiting for them, they will be driven 30 minutes away to Columbus and dropped off at one of two bus stops.

“There is no set date for release, so it is difficult to formulate plans,” said Rita Ellis, founding member and chief financial officer of Paz Amigos, a volunteer organization that springs into action when bus station staff informs it of a new group of detainees has come.

The organization helps between 40 and 50 men a month, picking them up, feeding them and often putting them up in a hotel or guest room at the volunteers' homes. Snacks, clothing and backpacks will be donated and family members will be contacted by phone to organize their trip.

“I think it's a great stopgap to help men make the transition from prison to freedom, and there's that scary moment where they're left in limbo, not sure where they are and how to get there to come home to their family and friends,” Ellis said. “We provide this service to ensure they get to their destination safely and with a little kindness.”

Meanwhile, Campos is still waiting for a solution for her son, who has lived in the United States since the mid-1990s.

“My first son, I was heartbroken because he’s not here,” she said. “I don’t want the same thing for the second one.”