Maria Campos sits in the backseat of a car with her grandchildren, her eyes welling 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 being deported back to Mexico last year, leaving behind his wife and children, who accompany Campos now. Campos fears her other son will meet the same fate after being detained when police were called on his friend.
“I said, ‘Don’t tell me this,’” she recalls saying to the jail officer when she learned her son had be sent to Stewart. “I can’t think. I can’t talk. I can do nothing. My mind stays blank.”
The razor-wire-ringed detention center stands beige and gray in the green outskirts of tiny Lumpkin, where detained immigrants outnumber residents. Those immigrants are caught in a larger system of immigration courts that are facing unprecedented turmoil from crushing caseloads and shifting policies.
Lumpkin has few available resources — only three immigration lawyers work here full time. There are no hotels, and many businesses in the downtown are shuttered. In the vacuum, a small network has sprung up to help the immigrants, offering them legal advice, places for relatives to stay and even gas cards for the families.
Campos doesn’t have money to pay for a lawyer, so her son is representing himself. Campos, her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren stayed at El Refugio, a house run by volunteers who help with food and gas.
She feels helpless when she visits her son at the detention center, which private company CoreCivic operates for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
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“This place is a horrible place because not all the 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 critical it is to have an attorney physically present for detainees.
“There's so much that happens in the court that, you know, body language, eye contact, all these other intangibles that you just lose if you were telephonic,” Rosenbluth said. “But most important, I think it makes the biggest difference to the clients themselves."
He recently bought a home in town with spare bedrooms to encourage attorneys to attend hearings in person.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, or SIFI, also has stepped in to help. Two staff attorneys work in Lumpkin full time, and volunteer lawyers come for a week at a time.
The organization's phone number is distributed in the Stewart immigration court, and attorney Erin Argueta estimates they get about 100 new calls a month.
It’s difficult for detained immigrants to see or even speak to lawyers who live far away, they have no access to email or fax, and the phones sometimes don’t work or are expensive, Argueta said. Communications are done by mail, which slows the process of collecting documentation, filling out forms in English and getting documents translated and notarized.
“It’s really hard for people at Stewart to carry on day-to-day life, never mind meaningfully prepare their case and gather evidence,” Argueta said.
Visitors to the immigration court pass through two sliding gates set into chain-link fencing topped by loops of razor wire, the first gate closing behind them before the second opens.
"I think that walking into that environment reinforces the desire to give hope to people and get them free to be with their families," said SIFI attorney Matt Boles, who lives full time in Lumpkin.
When detainees are released, it’s often in the evening. If they aren’t fortunate enough to have family waiting for them, they’re driven 30 minutes away to Columbus and left at one of two bus stations.
“There is no set time of release, so it’s 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 notify them that a new group of detainees has arrived.
The organization helps between 40 and 50 men a month, picking them up, feeding them and often putting them up in a hotel or a spare bedroom at a volunteer's homes. Donations of snacks, clothes and backpacks are handed out and phone calls are made to family members to arrange their travel.
“I think it’s a great gap filler to help the men transition from detention to being free, and there’s that scary moment when they’re left in limbo and they’re unsure of where they are and how to get home to their family and friends,” Ellis said. “We provide that service to make sure they get where they’re going safely and with a little kindness.”
Campos, meanwhile, is still waiting for resolution for her son, who has lived in the U.S. since the mid-1990s.
“My first son, my heart was broken because he’s not here," she said. “I don’t want the same for the second one.”