Detainee families find comfort, support at Georgia hospitality center

Overnight guests Melissa Sandoval and her granddaughter Hailee eat breakfast along with other guests Jared Martinez, his brother Jafet, his father Milber, and his sister Brianna, in late February at the El Refugio hospitality house in Lumpkin, Ga. Family members who stay at the house drive hundreds of miles to spend one hour visiting detainees at the nearby Stewart Detention Center. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)
Overnight guests Melissa Sandoval and her granddaughter Hailee eat breakfast along with other guests Jared Martinez, his brother Jafet, his father Milber, and his sister Brianna, in late February at the El Refugio hospitality house in Lumpkin, Ga. Family members who stay at the house drive hundreds of miles to spend one hour visiting detainees at the nearby Stewart Detention Center. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

by Andrew Nelson

LUMPKIN, Ga. (CNS) — Inside this cozy yellow bungalow, the kitchen smells of fried chorizo, onions and peppers, and scrambled eggs. A fresh pot of coffee is ready by 7 a.m. as guests awaken in the three bedrooms.

A mile from the barbed wire surrounding Stewart Detention Center in rural southwest Georgia sits this house of hospitality with its small front porch and warm surroundings. Family members who drive hundreds of miles to spend an hour visiting detainees at the center can find comfort and rest here, a place known as El Refugio (“the shelter”).

On a recent weekend, Sandra Portillo, 30, drove from North Carolina, leaving her home at 4 a.m. She said she visited her Mexican husband, who has been held for a year and a half at the center, for an hour. Before embarking on the six-hour trip home, she stopped with her three children, who were playing in the grassy yard, for a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches and soup. It was her second visit to El Refugio, which has lifted the loneliness of a detention center visit, Portillo said.

“I feel this was family,” she said. “They were really helpful. We could come here and rest for a little while.”

Without El Refugio, Melissa Sandoval and her granddaughter faced a night sleeping in her truck.

Sandoval, who lives in Rome, Georgia, drove 180 miles for the weekend in Lumpkin. They visited her husband, an immigrant from Mexico who is in the U.S. without legal permission. She said he was taken into custody on a traffic stop.

After a night’s sleep and breakfast at the shelter, she said, “Now, I feel so blessed.”

What brings family members to Lumpkin is the privately run, medium security Stewart Detention Center overseen by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It is one of more than 250 immigration detention centers in 28 states, according to the agency.

Corrections Corporation of America manages the facility, which has beds for 1,752 men. Rules allow visitors to see detainees for one hour a week. A Plexiglas barrier separates visitors from their loved ones; they talk over a phone.

Immigrant advocates have complained about Stewart. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed concerns with the federal government over practices it claims interfere with detainees’ access to lawyers. Legal representation can have a critical effect on detainee cases. SPLC officials wrote March 21 that 21 percent of immigrants with lawyers have success in immigration court nationwide versus 2 percent who are unrepresented.

And the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia in 2011 raised concerns about detainees facing abuse of authority, lack of access to lawyers, and about transferring detainees to a remote area of Georgia, away from family support.

Bryan Cox, ICE spokesman, rejected the claims. “As a matter of policy, attorneys are allowed access to their clients in ICE detention. Any claim to the contrary is something we’d categorically dispute,” he said in an email.

Nearly 205,000 parents of U.S.-citizen children were detained and deported between July 2010 and October 2012, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration Policy.

To supporters, El Refugio is a Christian response to serve the families of the detainees, who face questions about their immigration status and await an appearance in immigration court or deportation.

To the families, home is the word used to describe this one-bathroom refuge, where a crayon drawing of a tree filled with birds is taped to the refrigerator. Walls are covered with pictures drawn by a child’s hand and framed letters of thanks written by families. The three bedrooms are filled with bunk beds with room to sleep nearly a dozen. Families are not expected to pay for their overnight visit, although some slip the coordinators a few dollars.

Marilyn McGinnis is a member of the Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship. She travels to Lumpkin about once every six weeks to serve as a host at El Refugio.

“It’s a tangible way to make a difference on an issue [people] feel passionate about, but also feel powerless to change,” she said.

“Each weekend leaves me emotionally drained and physically tired, but the opportunity to serve neighbors in a time of need is extremely rewarding,” said Kimberly Nigro, who lives in Chamblee, Georgia, and attends Atlanta Christian Church. A former missionary in El Salvador, Nigro said she has heard “countless stories” of individuals risking safety to come to the U.S.

“I was moved by the idea of a ministry of hospitality and visitation as a way to ‘welcome the stranger’ despite our nation’s unwelcoming policies,” she said.

El Refugio opened in 2010. Inspired by the JustFaith program and Catholic social teaching, PJ and Amy Edwards simplified their life dramatically and helped to start El Refugio.

PJ left a white-collar management career track and dedicates his time to nonprofit and advocacy work. He joked that he now uses his “evil business skills for good.” Amy continues her corporate consulting job. The couple, both 45, and members of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Smyrna, Georgia, have two children.

The church’s stance on human dignity fuels their mission. Catholic social teaching’s core principle holds that every person is created in God’s image and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect, the USCCB maintains.

“Walking with these families, they are some of the bravest, most courageous people that we have met. It has really been a gift for us to be a part of it,” PJ said.

The couple drives the nearly 150 miles south from their home near Atlanta to serve as coordinators of the house several weekends a year.

Many detainees are sent to Stewart from faraway states to fill beds. El Refugio maintains a long list of detainees who have no regular visitors and directs a steady flow of students and faith-based groups to talk with those without family nearby.

The house runs on donations to cover its $800 a month cost of rent and utilities. Volunteers prepare meals and snacks for the families. Grants complement the aid from individual donors, including from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, American Immigration Lawyers Association and the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia.

In 2014, the house welcomed nearly 200 overnight guests. The organizers facilitated 342 visits to 152 different detainees, all with the help of 335 volunteers.

“It is such an unusual thing — people just offering Christian hospitality, particularly these white faces — to these people that all they hear on the news is how much Americans hate them and they are unwelcome here and we’re going to build a wall,” PJ said.

For Amy, the effort is being present to people, with an open door and food at the ready.

“There is not a lot I can do. I can’t create the miracle. I can’t fix or change massive systems that exist within the United States, and that we need to all talk through, but I can be there for another human being,” she said.

Copyright ©2016 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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