Alterna/El Refugio Visit: Divine Meetings, Homes of Hospitality & Voices of Hope

As some of you may know already, this past weekend I traveled to Georgia to spend time with an incredible organization striving to live out the incarnational, prophetic life of Jesus Christ through immigration advocacy, hospitality and accompaniment. Alterna, the organization I visited, strives to be a prophetic voice for justice at the country’s largest detention center located in Lumpkin, GA. They do this through having a hospitality house, El Refugio, having a visitation program for those being detained, and speaking out against the injustices that happen within the confines of this detention center through yearly solidarity marches and reporting of human rights violations to local human rights orgs.

It truly was God’s work in bringing me down to Georgia this past weekend. I first heard about this organization from a former Spanish professor (shout out to Alicia Juarez:) ) whose passion for immigrants’ rights was a constant reminder of the work we are all called to as children of God. I remember telling one of my roommates at the beginning of this summer, “How cool would it be if I actually was able to visit this organization?!”  I honestly still can’t believe it happened, but whenever I prayed about it I just got this sense of peace that somehow God would lead me down to Georgia to visit this summer one way or another. Wow, God is so faithful!

Side Notes:  To give you some quick background info, the Immigration detention-complex is currently the fastest-growing incarceration system in the U.S., detaining over 400,000 immigrants per year and spending $2 billion dollars annually, taken from tax payers’ money. More recently immigrants are being given “criminal” charges for a “civil” violation of crossing the border without the necessary legal papers. According to a report done by the American Immigration Council, 47% of all criminal immigration prosecutions were due to “illegal reentry”. While only a decade ago, there were only 3,300 immigrants sent to private prisons on criminal charges(in several states driving without a driver’s license is now considered a felony) currently the Federal Bureau of Prisons is giving $5.1 billion annually to private prison companies to keep more than 23,000 immigrants in detention centers on criminal charges. However, if you do the math, the majority of immigrants being held in detention centers have not committed a criminal offense, and often times those deemed as criminal offenses have committed a misdemeanor as small as a parking violation, or driving without a license.

The immigration detention center system is so complex and filled one case of abuse after another. The detention I visited, Stewart Detention Center, happens to be the country’s largest detention center, holding 2,000 men, and is located in the poorest town in the poorest county in Georgia. Coincidence? I think not.  The specific private prison corporation that owns Stewart Detention Center is called CCA, standing for Corrections Corporation of America. They are one of the largest, most influential private prison corporations in the country along with the GEO Corp. According to an article by USA Today about the political power of private prison companies, at the federal level, these companies (private prison corp.) have spent more than $32 million on lobbying and on campaign contributions since 2000. Surprisingly, or may not so surprising, CCA was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2000. Today they are one of the leading private prison corporations, with a net income of $162 million dollars. As you can see, there is corruption within this system on so many different levels.

 There’s so many more facts I could share with you, and I am just beginning to uncover more of the facts as well, so I urge you to do your own research after reading my own personal reflection. Now, back to my story!

The first day I arrived in Georgia I spent time with Anton Flores, director of Alterna, learning more about the community of LaGrange where Alterna is based out of. He told me how basic utilities, such as water, were being denied to immigrant families in their community if they could not provide the “correct” form of identification. Alterna seeks to create community that can advocate alongside recent immigrant families for challenges in unjust policies and practices like these on a local as well as national level.

 The first night I spent in LaGrange was one of anticipation, excitement and a little bit of fear. I knew the next morning we would be driving 1.5 hours down to the Stewart Detention Center.  I would not only be entering the country’s largest detention center, but I would also be speaking with a few men who were currently being detained. What would the detention center be like? Would I make it past the scrutinizing security who are known to turn away visitors—even family members—for not wearing the appropriate outfit? What injustices would I see in this place and how would I see God planting seeds of hope in the midst of corruption, abuse and violence?

 I had read a few articles specifically on Stewart Detention Center, so I had some idea of the abuses that occur behind the walls, but nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced during my visit. I arrived to see this:

 an expansive wall of barbed wire fence. I was told before arriving that it would not be advised to take a picture with my own camera. The guards are known to be not quite so nice when they see visitors taking photos—even outside the detention center—and are known as being quite aggressive, even towards people standing in the parking lot for a longer amount of time than deemed appropriate by CCA, the private prison corporation that owns Stewart Detention.

As I approached the gates I was a bit overwhelmed to say the least. We had to pass through two high-security gates before we were able to enter into the waiting room where families and friends stay until they can go backed and visit with their loved ones.

Once we made it past the sea of barbed wire protected fences I began to observe my surroundings in the waiting room. Everything about this space gave off an eerie vibe. Honestly, I felt like I could see the realities of the poverty simulation I had participated earlier in this summer (see previous post about poverty simulation for more detail) being lived out. The guards standing in a non-chalant manner, using harsh language towards those who did not follow the rules posted on the walls by CCA, imposing a rule of dominance–while me along with the rest of the people waiting to visit were left feeling helpless and intimidated.

The posters on the walls were sprinkled with friendly euphemisms such as “correctional solutions” for the services they provide. I’m not sure how “mass incarceration” of people who have mostly broken civil laws and have no criminal background can be deemed in need of “correcting” . The only ones in need of “correcting” in my opinion are the private prison companies themselves. There are posters on the wall that claim CCA is “protecting public safety” and another one that says they are “giving back to communities”, specifically low-income and communities of color. It was hard to not gag at the outrageous hypocrisy I faced even while waiting to visit.

 Even the vending machine was intimidating. There was a vending machine with a sign on it saying clearing “CCA is not responsible for any refunds”.  Above this vending machine there was a sign that was the most prominent of all the signs, by the size of it and by where it was placed in the waiting room. It read, “Be CAREful. Carelessness can hurt you and others”.  I thought about this for a while and I just found an article speaking out against the exact carelessness CCA claims to reject in an article pointing out the unjust medical treatment of immigrants in privately-owned detention centers. The title of this article reads “Careless Detention”.

Even though there are 2,000 men being detained at this detention center, there are only 5 seats for immigrants to visit with their loved ones, meaning only 5 families can visit at one time. So, we ended up waiting for an hour before we were able to visit. Because the room where we were waiting in was so small it was nearly impossible not to hear other families’ conversations.

There was a woman sitting by me with 5 children who was waiting to visit her husband who had been detained. She was pretty vocal about how upset she was at Stewart Detention Center/CCA. She was joking how even the vending machine was overpriced so they could make more profit.  This probably wouldn’t have stood out in mind so much if she had been a recent immigrant herself, but she was a white, woman with a thick southern drawl. By the look of her clothing and her complaint about the costs, it appeared she was from a low-income background. This woman struck me as an odd reminder of how detention centers deeply affect everyone, not just recent immigrants themselves. You just don’t expect to find poor, white Southerners, who are typically labeled as extremely conservative “rednecks”, to be rattling off their complaints against a private corporation with conservative lobbying interests. The irony of the situation speaks for itself. Those who CCA claim make a “sales pitch” for, white conservatives, cannot even accept such radical, for-profit corporations such as this when they are so evidently in opposition to creating real economic vitality—much less benefiting anyone but themselves.

After waiting for an hour in the waiting room outside of the detention center, we were finally able to pass through the security checkpoint—which was much stricter than any airport security I’ve ever gone through. As they watched me put all of my belongings, my watch, cell phone, water, etc. in to a small locker, I kept asking myself, “Really, what do they think I’m going to do?”“Who exactly are private prison corporations trying to protect?” These questions, among many others, were racing through my mind as I stood in a line among immigrant families against a wall waiting to visit.  

The guard then led us through a door. There were bathrooms on one side, which then to my dismay they informed us were “temporarily” out of order. They said the water system was being worked on so there would be no water, no showers, and no bathrooms for the next 6 hours. “Hmm, that’s strange,” I thought. We were also told that we would have one hour to visit with the person being detained and we could not leave the room until the guards came back to take us. One more rule and no joke, my brain was going to explode.

We were finally let into the room where the men who were being detained were waiting to talk with family members. The only thing I was told about the person I was going to meet with was that he was from Guatemala. A regular volunteer at El Refugio and the visitation program at the detention center who happens to be a social worker receive a list of names of different men that would like visitors. Often times the expenses and distance of travel (which for most families is at least 3 hours because the detention center is in rural Georgia) along with the restrictive visitation hours, makes it nearly impossible for family members to visit. So, I was given the name of a man who had said he would like a visitor.

The majority of the people visiting sat down right away once they spotted their loved one through the glass. I stood back, not sure what this person would look like and waited until I had a good guess that it was the right one. (Here’s a pic I found online that isn’t necessarily from an immigration detention center, but will give you an idea of what talking through the window is like).

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.

I introduced myself and explained that I was visiting with El Refugio. I then asked how he was doing. That was a loaded question to say the least. He told me he was very sad, and then began to tell me his story. He had been in this particular detention center since this past April 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. And they say the people being detained are the real “criminals”? Huh.

He told me he doesn’t want to be sent back though because he grew up 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 fiancé 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.

As our “phone call” through the glass window came to a close, his eyes filled with tears as he expressed his gratitude for my visit and all the others who have come to visit him so far through El Refugio/Alterna. He was crying as he was saying how bad it was being in there, yet how grateful he was that we cared enough to visit. The question he asked me that will forever stand out in my memory is when he questioned me with a shocked look on his face as I told him I lived in Minnesota, “You came all the way down here to visit, me?” I explained, yes, more or less I did. He just couldn’t grasp his mind around why I would want to visit. I explained that I felt called to work for justice so no one would ever have to go through the hell he was experiencing. I told him coming alongside those who were suffering was something I couldn’t not do when I had learned of the unjust detention system.

We talked awhile about our faith and he told me how God had totally healed him from different illnesses. I reminded him that God is just and would make sure that justice was served for the hell he was enduring each day. I asked him if I could pray for him before I left. Just as I started to pray, I heard a guard’s voice. At first I didn’t realize who she was yelling at. Then I realized it was me. “Time to go! Come on, let’s move it!”, she yelled. I quickly ended my conversation.

As I stood in a line along with the others who had just said good-bye to their loved ones I could sense the weight of the pain they were carrying. Their faces spoke more than any prayer ever could. These were people who had continued to be beat down again and again by society  and seeing their loved ones behind glass, so close, but still just out of reach, on top of the systemic oppression they had felt from the time they had entered the detention center, was just too much to bear.

Right after the first visit I felt emotionally beat-up. I wanted to scream and cry and kick something all at once. It just was not fair. As I was crying out to God, I heard Yahweh speak to me and say “I have never once left my beloved people and I never will. I will be with my people, those among you who are marginalized and oppressed, even to the end of the age”. I was left comforted by this as I embarked on another visit.

The next day, Sunday, we came back to visit some more people. This time around I didn’t feel nearly as anxious as the previous day. The visit I had on Sunday was much less emotionally draining than the first one, but just as upsetting. The man I visited with on Sunday was from Mexico originally. He had no family in the U.S. and had been in the detention center for a little over a year. Needless to say, he was ready to go back to his home and be with his family.

Within five minutes of our conversation, 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, any toiletries, you name it all cost those being detained money. Nothing was free. Nada.  

So, you may ask how do they get money to pay for everything then? Well, they have this thing called a compensary where family members of those being detained can send money to them, but if they don’t have family members that can send them money they are basically forced to work for CCA. And here’s the worst part of it. Guess how much they pay them per day:  $1-$3 PER DAY . And 90% of the jobs at CCA are done by those being detained. Yes, that’s right we still live in a country where SLAVE LABOR exists.  While CCA claimed they would “boost the local economy”  they have done little to provide jobs for those living in the poorest town, in the poorest county in Georgia. Also, I must question if that was their real intent to give local people jobs, then why wouldn’t they hire people from the community to the work in the detention center? One simple answer:  profit. They know they can use cheap labor and exploit those who are already being degraded, humiliated and dehumanized through detention.

Anyways, this man I was talking to who was in detention was telling me how they only sell them toothbrushes once every two weeks. Once he said he bought extra and they took them from him and threw them in the trash. He said this is common routine. They regularly take people’s things, esp. if they think they have “too much”, and throw it away. Of course, then those being detained are forced to buy more from them.

He also told me a bit about the eating and health conditions. He said the food was not sufficient. He said his stomach always hurts because they never give them enough food and they only get meat once every two weeks. He told me that the center is divided into units containing 66 men in each pod. In each pod or unit there is one nurse. He said the nurse is not around on the weekend and there are many people with medical issues that are not being met. The nurses are known to give those being detained Tylenol to people who have severe medical conditions. A man originally from Mexico, named Roberto Martinez Medina, died in this detention center. Throughout the country there have been countless deaths, many that could have been prevented had CCA given them the proper medical attention.  Between 2003 to 2009, 90 deaths had been reported at different detention centers throughout the country.

While he was given a specific date they would deport him, often times immigrants have to wait for months after their designated “removal” date. He said often times they will deport people on a Monday when they don’t have access to their compensary. This way CCA gets to keep the money, if they had any, from their compensary. He claims this is just another method of intimidation.

The whole time I was talking to him I knew that this was a man who knew his rights. He kept saying “no es correcto” and “no es justo”, meaning “it’s not right” and “it’s not just” what they were doing. He told me that he has been drawing while in detention to pass the time and that he likes to thank all of those who visit him by sending them a picture. The hour I spent talking with this man was full of moments of laughter and moments of righteous anger. Much like my conversation the day before, it was very difficult to say good-bye. He thanked me for visiting and I told him I would be praying for his departure soon.

After the visits on Sunday, we headed back to LaGrange (where Alterna is located) and I was blessed with some much needed time of emotional, physical and spiritual rest. I stayed with the director of the organization and his family and I could not have asked for a more welcoming and loving home to be a part of for the few days I was there. The saying “mi casa es tu casa” definitely was true of this family! I also got to meet a few of the neighbors that they live in intentional community with on the same street in LaGrange. It was beautiful getting to see a glimpse of another intentional community striving to live out the teachings of Christ. It was so clear to me in the few days I spent with this family that hospitality was not something done out of courtesy, but out of love–a love that was motivated from a deep sense of knowing the heart of God for those who are strangers, wanderers and sojourners. I couldn’t have asked for a better last two days of my journey.

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.  

 (pilgrimage outside of immigration detention center in Atlanta…the name of the man of died in Stewart is carried on the cross)

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. We must, like the women who mourned and wailed for Jesus as he carried the cross, weep with those who are being “crucified” by the powers of this world. We must, like Mary Magdalene watching as Christ was crucified, be a present witness to the injustices that leave the oppressed of this world hanging on a crucifix to die. We must, like the early followers of Christ when they saw Christ resurrected from the grip of death, cling to the hope of the triumph of good over evil; justice over injustice; love over hate. We must, like Zaccheus’s radical conversion through Christ to a life of solidarity with those he had formerly terrorized, live lives with and among those most terrorized, most humiliated, most dehumanized in our society today. It is then, after we have completed a holy exchange from a place of power and insulation from the pain of the world around us to a place of downward mobility, living, seeing and being with those most marginalized that we will not be able to take back our comfortable, yet destructive lives—for it is then my brothers and sisters that we will have been fully crucified and made one with Christ.

May you find yourself in divine meetings, welcomed in to homes of hospitality and hear voices of hope that drown out even the loudest screams of death and defeat.



2 thoughts on “Alterna/El Refugio Visit: Divine Meetings, Homes of Hospitality & Voices of Hope

  1. Sarah,
    Thank you for writing so clearly about the men who are detained in Georgia, and your visits with them and with the director of El Refugio. I am so glad you were able to make this trip happen, or allow God to make it happen. When Bethel is helping to prepare people like you to enter our world as God’s world-changers, I am so proud to be at Bethel. May God continue to move you to fight injustice and to challenge oppressive systems. Thank you for the details you included, and related links. I am sharing your blog with one of my Master’s students who is writing a literature review about immigration. God is working in you and I want to watch you live your life in days to come!
    A sister in Christ,

  2. Thank you for putting a face to this horrible horrible injustice occuring. From speaking with you and reading your post, I feel connected somehow to these men and will keep them in my thoughts as long as possible.
    Your spirit is a witness and you are living what you believe–for this I thank you and thank Yaweh for true Faithfulness, even though it is difficult to see and believe.
    -your sister and roommate

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