Ever since I was young, I have always had an interest in the struggle for human rights. Whether it was a story about Harriet Tubman, known by those she rescued as “Moses”, or a story about Anne Frank living in secret in the Nazi-occupied Germany, I have always been drawn to learning more about the struggles, hardships and triumphs marginalized peoples have encountered in the face of oppression. Over the past few years, God has continued to open my eyes to the injustices different people groups have endured in this country. Due to the relationships I have built with Latino immigrant families living in the U.S., I have grown increasingly aware of the issues facing their communities.
One of the issues facing Latino immigrant families that has been very close to my heart is the issue of immigration detention. This past August, I felt called to take a trip down to Georgia where our country’s largest immigration detention center is located. I went down expecting to see and hear some difficult stories, but nothing could have prepared me for what I encountered. I learned so much in the brief time I spent there. I learned that 3 million immigrants have been held in immigration detention facilities across the country during the past decade, which drains money from taxpayers, costing $122 per day for just one person held in detention. But the most important piece of this trip was meeting with two men who were being held at Stewart Detention Center, the largest immigration detention facility in the country. This transformed me in a way that a statistic never could. During the weekend I visited Georgia, I spent time with Alterna, an incredible organization striving to live out the incarnate, prophetic life of Jesus Christ through immigration advocacy, hospitality and accompaniment.
The immigration detention center I visited, Stewart Detention Center, holds 2,000 men. Instead of being built in Atlanta, where the majority of immigrant lawyers in the state are located, the detention center was built in the poorest county in Georgia, in the most socioeconomically depressed town in the state. Stewart Detention Center is just one of over 250 immigrant detention centers throughout the country, of which half are owned by private prison companies such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). According to an article by USA Today, at the federal level, private prison companies like CCA have spent more than $32 million on lobbying and on campaign contributions since 2000.
The morning after I arrived at Alterna, a group of us drove down to Lumpkin to visit with those being held in Stewart Detention Center. I was told I would be meeting with a man, originally from Guatemala, who was being detained. I didn’t know what to say at first, but right away I could sense the weight of all of the pain this man was carrying by the look on his face. Sometimes these men haven’t had contact with someone “on the outside” in several weeks, even a month or two.
He told me he was very sad, and then began to tell me his story. He had been in this particular detention center since April 2012 and originally had wanted to fight his deportation. He had contacted a lawyer several times, but they never showed up. Since immigration courts do not guarantee a person who is without the right legal papers a lawyer, this man’s story was not uncommon. Approximately 84% of detainees do not have attorneys. He told me that ICE had recently sent him a letter telling him that if he did not accept his deportation, he would be sent to a federal prison.
He told me he did not want to be sent back to Guatemala because he grew up as an orphan on the streets for most of his life. He was taken in by a family as a teenager and came here on a visa, but it expired. He had a life here. His eyes filled with tears as he told me that his fiancée was expecting a baby. How would his son or daughter understand why he had to leave? He told me he couldn’t stand the thought of abandoning his child, the same way he had been abandoned at a young age.
The next day, Sunday, we came back to make some more visits to men being detained. The man I visited with on Sunday was from Mexico originally and had been in the detention center for a little over a year.
Within five minutes, he was already telling me about the horrible conditions of the detention center. First of all, he told me “nada es gratis”, meaning nothing is free. Yes, water was free, but he said no one ever drinks it because it is too dirty. Clean water, toothbrushes, warmer clothes, toiletries, all cost money. Nothing was free. Nada.
He explained to me that in the detention center they have something called a compensary where family members of those being detained can send money to them. However, if they don’t have family members that can send them money they have no other option but to work for the private prison company. And, even worse is that these private prison companies get away with only paying those who are detained $1-3 per day for their work. Those being detained perform 90% of the jobs at CCA. By all legal definitions, this is slave labor. While CCA claimed they would “boost the local economy”, if their real intent was to give local people jobs, then why wouldn’t they hire people from the community to work in the detention center? One simple answer: profit.
As I headed home on the plane bound for the Twin Cities, I reflected more on both of my visits. I could not help but feel as if the hour I had spent with both men were divine meetings. Even though I had only talked with these men for an hour each, I had spent time laughing and crying with both of them. The glass that separated us from one another seemed like a stark reminder of the way society viewed each of us.
We are not “supposed” to come alongside those who are viewed as nothing more than a “profit” to the powerful corporations of this world; we are not “supposed” to weep with those who have been stripped of all dignity; but most of all we are not “supposed” to join with those who are the most marginalized, isolated and oppressed in our society in their struggle for justice because that would really disrupt the social order. But isn’t that what followers of Christ have always been called to do? By the world’s standards we are not “supposed” to do any of those things. But by the standards of Christ, we are not only “supposed” to, but we “must” in order to find true life with the Messiah of the oppressed.
Sarah Northrup is a senior at Bethel University studying Spanish, TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) and Reconciliation Studies. She is the co-leader of the G92 student group on Bethel’s campus and loves sharing her passion for just, biblical immigration reform with others. You can follow her personal blog at http://seedsofhope09.wordpress.com/. She plans to continue using her passion for immigration advocacy through non-profit or ministry work. In the future, she would like to continue her studies in Social Work or Immigration Law.
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