Surrounded by barbed wire, sliding doors open and shut as a group of Emory students pass through them.
After making it past a metal detector, the students enter a small room with five phones, only some of which they can count on to work. Constantly aware of the cameras that monitor their every move, they pick up the phones and begin conversations with men in jumpsuits who are seated on the other side of a glass barrier.
While these students may appear to be visiting a medium- or high-security prison, the men on the other end of the phones are not serving time for a crime. The students are actually visiting undocumented immigrants at Stewart Detention Center, the largest immigration detention facility in the United States, located in Lumpkin, Ga.
Students from the Rollins School of Public Health, Candler School of Theology and Goizueta Business School have visited the center with El Refugio, a hospitality house that serves the families of detainees, said Carla DeSisto, a second-year Rollins student who has visited Stewart many times.
El Refugio, run entirely by volunteers, provides a place to stay for families of detainees who have to travel long distances in order to see their loved ones, DeSisto explained. She added that this is a vital service because there is no hotel in the area.
The organization also brings groups of volunteers to Stewart to visit detainees who wouldn’t otherwise receive visitors.
The detention center only allows 35 visitors per day for an hour each. While this number pales in comparison to the 1,700 detainees at the center, this hour is the only contact the detainees will have with the outside world for at least a week, usually longer.
The volunteers from El Refugio act as friends to the detainees and give them a chance to see a new face. They talk about matters ranging from their families, life in the detention center or how the detainee ended up at Stewart.
One man DeSisto visited had been taken to Stewart after being caught driving without a license, which she said was a fairly common story among detainees. The man, who had immigrated to the United States when he was five years old and graduated from an American high school, had been working to support his wife and daughter before his detainment. Now, the government pays for his meals while his family could end up on welfare, DeSisto said.
“Why is the government spending so much money?” she asked. “These men are only adding to the country, so why are they sending them away?”
Another detainee to whom DeSisto spoke was detained after committing a traffic violation. Although he has taken no legal action to prevent his deportation, the center has held him for almost a year and will continue to hold him indefinitely.
According to DeSisto, this is a common occurrence at Stewart. She told the story of a third man whose court date, which had to be held over the internet with a judge in Atlanta, was delayed for three months because Skype wasn’t working.
Ray Serrano, a Ph.D. student in health policy, said such indefinite detainment often causes detainees to lose hope. Many of them are completely shut out from the outside world, especially if their family members are also undocumented immigrants because they are not allowed to visit the center.
“[The] humanity is sucked out of them,” he said. “They’re made to look like they don’t matter.”
Because the center is for-profit, their goal is to make money, which means detaining more people for longer, according to DeSisto. She added that because of this for-profit nature, Stewart cuts a lot of corners, including hiring some detainees to perform menial tasks because they don’t have to pay them minimum wage.
Furthermore, DeSisto said that center raises significant human rights concerns, such as overcharging detainees for basic medical supplies. As a public health student, she said that the public health violations were particularly horrifying.
“I felt ashamed to be an American,” she said. “The U.S. prides itself on promoting human rights but allows this to go on in their background. That is not what the U.S. stands for.”
DeSisto said that volunteers from each participating graduate school raise different concerns about Stewart.
In addition to public health concerns, theology students advocate for the detainee’s spiritual needs while law students are interested in their legal rights.
“If you’re on Emory’s campus and concerned about human rights, you should venture and see for yourself,” Serrano said.
Both Serrano and DeSisto said they hope to involve more Emory students, especially undergraduates, in volunteering with El Refugio and continue to promote collaboration across campus.
– By Elizabeth Howell
Photo by Carla DeSisto
Updated on March 27, 2013 at 5:06 p.m.: The original version of this article described the immigrants mentioned as “illegal immigrants” rather than using the proper term “undocumented immigrants,” which has been changed in the story above. The Wheel apologizes for the error.