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Asylum Seekers and Immigrants Detained in Georgia Face Insurmountable Hurdles to Asylum, Release, and Counsel

Last week I visited the two immigration detention centers in South Georgia--Irwin County Detention Center and the Stewart Detention Center, which is the largest U.S. immigration detention center for adults.
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wired fence with barbed wires on blue sky  background
wired fence with barbed wires on blue sky background

Last week I visited the two immigration detention centers in South Georgia--Irwin County Detention Center and the Stewart Detention Center, which is the largest U.S. immigration detention center for adults. Stewart has capacity to hold 2,100 people. Over the course of fiscal year 2015, more than 14,000 people were detained at Stewart and Irwin combined.

During the visits my colleagues and I met with 77 men and women, escaping from violence and persecution in Somalia, Ethiopia, Cuba and China as well as Central America, Ecuador, and Peru. The vast majority were pursuing asylum or other forms of humanitarian protection. They expressed frustration and anxiety over being held in a jurisdiction which, they feared, would not afford them a fair chance at winning their asylum cases or being released from detention.

The statistics strongly support the detainees' sentiment. In FY 2015 just 1.1 percent of cases at the Stewart Detention Center immigration court resulted in any form of relief, while just 5.1 percent of asylum applicants were granted. In the Atlanta immigration court, which hears cases in the Irwin facility via video conference, just 1.8 percent of all cases were granted relief and just 2.1 percent of asylum cases were granted.

The massive denial rate of cases in Georgia is astounding when compared to national averages. Immigration judges in Georgia denied around 45 percent more asylum cases than the national average, and nearly 30 percent more cases resulted in deportation.

In Stewart, asylum seekers reported that immigration judges inform those appearing in court without a lawyer that they would be deported, even before individually assessing each case. Statistically, an asylum seeker's chances of avoiding deportation in Georgia's courts without a lawyer are close to nil--but for a judge to state this to an individual before hearing the merits of his claim shows little regard for fairness and due process.

Located nearly 150 miles from Atlanta, the Stewart facility is buried in rural Georgia, where few attorneys are available to represent detainees. Irwin is even further away. The most recent data indicate that just six percent of detainees at Stewart are represented by an attorney, tied for the third lowest rate of representation anywhere in the country. A national study found that 14 percent of detained immigrants nationwide have counsel, while 69 percent of those released from detention are able to obtain a lawyer.

Only a handful of detainees we spoke with had lawyers, but those lawyers were located in Miami, California, or Texas, far away and unlikely to have regular contact with their detained clients.

Human Rights First recently release a report, Lifeline on Lockdown: Increased U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers, which found that asylum seekers nationwide face greater challenges obtaining release from detention, despite policies meant to safeguard release procedures. But in Georgia, release is nearly impossible, and asylum seekers we spoke to were well aware of this as well.

In fiscal year 2015, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) granted parole to zero detainees in Georgia. Despite the fact that many asylum seekers are eligible under a 2010 parole directive, instructing ICE agents to automatically consider parole for all arriving asylum seekers who pass an initial screening interview and to release them if they satisfy the relevant requirements, no one was granted parole from Irwin or Stewart detention centers last year.

Those that are eligible for bond face high amounts that indigent individuals cannot pay. For example, Yefri Sorto-Hernandez was picked up by ICE agents while waiting for the school bus in Charlotte, North Carolina in January 2016. In June, after six months in detention, a judge at the Stewart Immigration court set Yafri's bond at $30,000 dollars, despite the 19-year-old student having family in the US and no criminal record.

Facing well over a 90 percent chance that their cases will be denied, many see no other option than to drop their case and accept deportation. Some of the detainees we interviewed indicated they would accept their deportation, despite their fear of violence and persecution, in an attempt to escape prolonged detention, forcing some to take the dangerous journey again in hopes of a more just process in another location.

Atlanta has been called one of the worst places to be an undocumented immigrant. Being detained in Georgia appears to be an even more dismal fate. One asylum seeker at Stewart summed up his experience by explaining, "The judge asks you, 'where are you from?,' you answer and they say, 'that is where you are going.'"