The Little Yellow Sanctuary in the Shadow of ICE

The Little Yellow Sanctuary in the Shadow of ICE

The Little Yellow Sanctuary in the Shadow of ICE

El Refugio has given the family members of immigrant detainees food, shelter, and assistance in a remote corner of Georgia.


On a muggy Saturday in July, Brandi Rolleigh and Brandi Walton sat talking on the on the sofa of El Refugio, a small yellow sanctuary one mile from Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. Rolleigh, a 42-year-old Alabaman with blond curls and turquoise sneakers, had just returned from visiting her fiancé, Elvio Lopez-Martinez, who’s a detainee at Stewart. Walton, 34, was resting from her five-hour drive from Charlotte, North Carolina. Her gray dress swelled around her middle; she was eight months pregnant with her first child, a girl. Her fiancé, Edwin Yanes, was in the detention center as well.

“This is a nightmare you don’t wake up from,” Walton says. “I never imagined giving birth by myself. He is going to miss our baby being born.” They wanted to be married before the baby came, and had planned a small ceremony in two days at Stewart. Getting married at a detention center involves obtaining approvals from the detention center chaplain, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and finally, the warden at Stewart. Walton completed the several weeks-long process at the end of June and was now counting the days until the ceremony.

This plan was largely possible because of El Refugio. In 2010, a group of immigration activists from Atlanta, La Grange, and Columbus, Georgia, gathered together and decided to open the hospitality center for people visiting loved ones detained at Stewart. To this day, it is the only refuge anywhere near Stewart—the closest hotel is in Americus, Georgia, 40 miles east, while the closest airport is Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport 140 miles away. This is typical of ICE detention centers, which are located in isolated geographic locations by design so that family members, attorneys, and journalists have little access.

Led by Anton Flores, the head of an organization called Casa Alterna that supports Latin American immigrants, the activists rented a three-bedroom house on Main Street for $450 per month. It needed significant repairs and a fresh coat of paint, but they pooled their time and their labor, and were able to open the house at the end of November that same year. Today, the red-brown front door displays a wreath made of Guatemalan worry dolls, which, according to Mayan legend, absorb worries while one sleeps. Framed photos of families El Refugio has hosted line the narrow, dimly lit hallway. At the back of the house, appliances and nonperishable foods cram the kitchen and signs of appreciation cover the refrigerator. Yo Amo A El Refugio, one reads.

El Refugio has provided free lodging and food to hundreds of detainees’ family members, like Walton and Rolleigh, as well as attorneys who drive down from Atlanta to visit their clients. In addition to providing visitors a place to stay, El Refugio organized over 600 visits with detainees in 2017.

Amilcar Valencia, a Salvadoran American who lives with his family in Atlanta, has been the executive director since 2015. Over the years, he’s established a good rapport with employees of CoreCivic, the company that operates the facility. “We work hard to build a friendly relationship with the warden and officers,” said Valencia. “We relay what we hear from detainees about the conditions of the facility and medical care. But we’re primarily here to support the families. El Refugio is a true refuge in an inhospitable place.”

ICE was created in the wake of 9/11, but recently the agency has been empowered to do a lot more than it used to. During the first week of his presidency, Donald Trump issued two executive orders that greatly expanded the pool of immigrants that ICE could target for detention and deportation. Over the past year and a half, ICE has arrested immigrants with decades-old crimes, even if they have already served their time; immigrants convicted of misdemeanors; and even immigrants whose charges have been dismissed.

Edwin Yanes is among them. According to Brandi Walton, Yanes and his family emigrated from Honduras in 1999 through the United States’ Temporary Protected Status program, which granted them temporary legal residence after Hurricane Mitch struck Central America in 1998. Walton and Yanes met last year in Charlotte through a mutual friend. In early June of this year, Yanes was arrested for possession of drugs and paraphernalia in the parking lot of a hookah lounge. The contraband didn’t belong to him, and just two weeks later, the charges were dropped.

ICE has the authority to place two-day detainers, also known as “holds,” on immigrants in custody, if there is probable cause for which they can be removed from the United States. This is what happened to Yanes when he was on the verge of being released from Mecklenburg County Jail in Charlotte. At the end of the 48 hours, despite the fact that Walton was present at the jail with the money to bail him out, ICE issued a second detainer. On June 6, ICE took Yanes into custody.

The couple had hoped Yanes would be released from jail so they could marry and make their lives in Charlotte, but they came up with a backup plan: Brandi and her newborn daughter would move in with Yanes’s parents, and she would start nursing school in the fall. She’s terrified what will happen to her fiancé if he’s removed to a country where he has no family and no friends, and where his life is at risk. “He tells me that if he gets deported, in two months he’ll die.”

Marrying a US citizen used to be a reliable way for immigrants to live in this country legally, but this is not necessarily the case anymore, and it’s unclear whether Yanes’s earlier misdemeanors from 2013 and 2015, for possession of marijuana, will prevent him from receiving a green card after he’s married.

Brandi Rolleigh’s situation isn’t that different. Her fiancé, Lopez-Martinez, came with his sister and cousin from Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico, when he was 17 years old. He prefers not to discuss the circumstances of his departure. “It’s too difficult for him to talk about,” she says. “We’ll talk about everything except why he came over.” He worked for the same company for more than 20 years, and met Rolleigh in Muscle Shoals. She was dating someone else at the time, so at first they just talked and texted. Lopez-Martinez asked Rolleigh whether she’d give him a chance if things didn’t work out between her and her boyfriend, and six months later, she did. They’ve been together ever since.

Last November, Lopez-Martinez was initially arrested for aggravated assault and ultimately charged with with criminal trespassing—and, like in Yanes’s case, the charges were dropped. ICE nevertheless placed a 48-hour hold on him, and four hours into the detainer, agents took him directly to Stewart, where he’s been since May 10. Rolleigh has been his only visitor. He’s told her he won’t allow his sisters to visit because he would not be able to handle their crying.

Rolleigh feels isolated, too. She has no friends or family members in a similar situation, and before Lopez-Martinez was detained, she didn’t even know detention centers like Stewart existed. “Nobody talks about this,” she says. “This administration is only concerned with deporting as many people as possible without thought to what is happening to the family members or loved ones they are leaving behind. It’s inhumane.”

She didn’t know what to expect at Stewart until Refugio volunteers explained the process. “They walked me through the steps. I was scared to death,” she says. “Having them there and explaining everything and just being really compassionate about it—it took some stress off.”

Rolleigh and her fiancé speak on the phone every day. That in itself is a challenge. The phone lines aren’t always open, and detainees usually pay at least a few dollars for a 15-minute call. Under the circumstances, she says Lopez-Martinez is “super positive” and looks for the bright side in every situation. “Being where he is—getting mad does him no good.”

For couples like Walton and Yanes, and Rolleigh and Lopez-Martinez, not knowing how long they’ll be apart from each other or whether they’ll be able to begin their lives as married couples in the U.S. is a tremendous stress they endure every day.

Stuart Detention Center looks like a Caribbean resort after the apocalypse: two rows of fence fifteen feet high, topped with another few feet of spiraled razor wire, surround the maroon-paneled main entrance, flanked by palm trees on either side. Of course, it’s anything but: it is the largest ICE detention center in the United States. The all-male medium security facility holds up to almost 2,000 male detainees, and given the financial incentives the U.S. government provides to for-profit corporations like CoreCivic, the center is almost always at or near capacity. That means that on any given day, Stewart’s detainee population exceeds the 1,100 residents of Lumpkin.

According to the most recent data compiled by the non-profit group Freedom for Immigrants, Georgia, which has a total of four ICE detention centers, incarcerates an average of 3,717 detainees, the fourth largest number in the country after Texas (15,852), California (6,527), and Arizona (3,869). It is one of the worst states in the country for an asylum-seeking immigrant. According to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, in the fiscal year ending 2016, immigration judges nationwide approved 43 percent of petitions for asylum.

In Georgia immigration courts, this figure hovers somewhere between a dismal two and 10 percent. It’s so low Georgia has been dubbed an Asylum-Free Zone. Moreover, reports have found numerous human rights violations, including excessive and unjustified use of solitary confinement as well as poor access to medical care at Stewart. The center is also routinely short-staffed. El Refugio’s volunteers, and the people they assist, are up against a lot.

Before the two Brandis met at El Refugio, P.J. Edwards, one of the organization’s board members, led a brief training session for volunteers who would be visiting detainees at Stewart. Edwards, who lives in Smyrna, Georgia, volunteers with his wife Amy at El Refugio about seven or eight times a year. At the training, he talked about the backgrounds of the detainees they typically see at Stewart—asylum-seekers from Mexico and Central America who have no family members in the U.S.—and how the volunteers should interact with the detainees: ask how they are being treated at the facility, but don’t bring up their legal case. “The idea is to spend the time to be a friend for one hour for this person who is in the midst of a crisis,” he said. “Let them lead the conversation.”

When they arrived at Stewart, volunteer-visitors signed in, handed over their IDs, and were given forms to fill out. If visitors are seeking any comfort for the heartache that derives from the extended separations from loved ones—they certainly won’t find it in this waiting room. The carpet in the waiting room is gray, the walls cream. Two giant floor-to-ceiling flags, one the American flag and the other the flag of the state of Georgia, line the back wall. Cell phones aren’t allowed in the waiting room, and no writing utensils or paper can be brought in either, though visitors can request a slip of paper and a pencil from one of the guards. There is no television, no toys or books for children, no vending machines, no music flowing through speakers, no table, not even a box of tissues. To use the restroom, visitors must first go through the metal detector to the other side of the waiting room.

As the volunteers waited, nine visitors sat on black plastic chairs. Most of them were women, their hair pulled back, their eyes swollen from sleep deprivation, or crying, or both. A toddler wearing purple pants and bright pink sneakers walked around with her bottle; when her mother went to the other side of the room, she ran back and forth through the metal detector, smiling at the visitors, as if playing a game of peek-a-boo.

At around 11:30 am, “Ana” arrived with her children, two daughters ages 14 and 12, and her 10-year-old son. The family had driven nine hours from North Carolina to see their father and husband, who was undocumented. They did not have a money for a hotel, and didn’t know they could stay the night at El Refugio at no cost.

“Is it safe for my kids?” Ana asked—the first of three times. She said she might come by later that day. She didn’t.

Later that afternoon, the volunteer-visitors trickled back to El Refugio for a debrief. Over lunches they’d brought from home, they talked about what they learned during their visits. A Punjabi-Sikh detainee from India was so desperate to flee persecution he traveled to Central America first, then through Mexico, then crossed over to the United States near San Diego. He’d been at Stewart for ten months, and his lawyer recently told him he would be removed. A 19-year-old from Guatemala had a younger brother and sister living in Marietta, Georgia. He’d been living in Georgia for five years when he was picked up by ICE after driving without a license on his way to work at a restaurant. Despite his four-month stay at Stewart, he appeared to be in good spirits. Today’s visit was his first.

There was also a man from Gambia who’d been at Stewart for two years, despite the fact that he’d lost his asylum case last November and was supposed to have been sent back. He said he had a son and a daughter in Gambia, as well as numerous brothers and sisters, and he’d fled because he was being forced to marry. Like the Indian national, he’s also crossed over first to South America, traveled through Central America, Mexico and then entered the United States. He’d never received legal representation.

“Systemically, the detainees are unrepresented,” Edwards said at the end of the session. “Here in Georgia, there are not enough attorneys who want to represent cases they know they’re not going to win.”

By late afternoon, the gray clouds lifted, opening up the sky and letting the sunshine in. A new group of visitors filled the dining room and spilled over into the kitchen. Brian Kilheffer, a deacon from the Americus Mennonite Fellowship, was here with his two daughters and his guitar. A minister and doctor from Columbus, Rev. Sandra McCann, worked on a poster next to Holly Patrick, chair of El Refugio’s Communications Committee. About 15 others from Atlanta, La Grange, and Americus greeted one another cheerily, despite the somber reason for their gathering.

That evening, El Refugio was hosting a vigil to honor the life of 40-year-old Efrain Romero de la Rosa, a Mexican national who died by suicide after 21 days in solitary confinement. An investigation found that de la Rosa had been previously diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. His death is the fourth at Stewart in 15 months, and the second suicide. Since October 1, 2017, nine detainees have died in ICE custody, and since 2003, of nearly 200 detainees have died in detention facilities across the United States.

The vigil began outside in front of the house. Patrick welcomed the group and read from a Unitarian Universalist hymn book. Then, the group drove to a grassy area just outside of Stewart. A Lumpkin County sheriff and four Core Civic guards (who knew about the vigil ahead of time) observed nearby. Some attendees held signs; Jason Mullenkamp of Glendale Home Missioners in Blakely, Georgia, passed out yellow flowers. The sun was hot and bright, and there was little shade in which to seek shelter. Patrick read the hymn “This is My Song,” and Kilheffer strummed on his guitar. Together, everyone sang “O Healing River.”

O healing river, send down your waters,
send down your waters upon this land.

An obituary, written with the help of de la Rosa’s family, was read first in Spanish, and then translated into English. De la Rosa, known affectionately by his family as “Bin,” was born in Puebla, Mexico. After moving to the United States in 2000, he lived most of his life in Raleigh, North Carolina. He worked in sales, loved Mexican food, and enjoyed spending time with his three brothers, his parents, and his nephews.

“Efrain’s life was of value,” P.J. Edwards said. “We honor him today and stand steadfast in our commitment to fight for justice in his name. May Efrain rest in peace and power.”

The vigil concluded after a few verses of “Amazing Grace.” And the small crowd, many of them regulars at these Stewart vigils, made their way to their cars to drive back home.

Two weeks later, Brandi Rolleigh is back in Lumpkin, Georgia, at El Refugio, after another seven-hour drive to visit her fiancé, Lopez-Martinez, at Stewart. Over the past two weeks, Lopez-Martinez had two unsuccessful hearings in court, and on the advice of his lawyer, decided on voluntarily deportation to Mexico. “That’s what it came down to,” Rolleigh says. “There wasn’t going to be any other option.”

The judge gave him sixty days to leave the country.

The couple was busy filling out the necessary paperwork to marry at Stewart before he had to depart. After Lopez-Martinez returns to Mexico, Rolleigh says, they will begin the process of Lopez-Martinez’s legal immigration to the United States. There are no guarantees it will work.

I ask Rolleigh whether she would take leave from her job in Alabama to live with Lopez-Martinez in Mexico. She sighs heavily into the phone. “I don’t know right now,” she says. “I’m kind of like in a hard spot. I just don’t know.”

Brandi Walton, now Brandi Yanes, did marry Edwin Yanes on Monday, July 23, but the ceremony did not go as planned. Core Civic officers first claimed she didn’t have an appointment to get married and then claimed Edwin was unavailable. Neither turned out to be true. After a significant delay, they married, though they were not allowed to hold hands during the ceremony. “We got married looking at each other through glass,” she says. “I didn’t get to hug him or kiss him. I barely got to touch his finger to give him his ring.”

Brandi Yanes didn’t make it back to Charlotte that night. Later the same day, she was feeling unwell and admitted to a hospital in Atlanta. Two days later, she gave birth to Mia a month ahead of schedule. It was bittersweet.

“I saw so many couples at the hospital celebrating together and taking family pictures, and I don’t have that. Mia and I were cheated out of making those memories with Edwin. He has always wanted a daughter, and now he has one but isn’t able to be a daddy, and it’s not fair to him or us.”

A few days later, she made the trip back down to Stewart to introduce Edwin to Mia. “The first time he saw his daughter should not have been through glass and we shouldn’t have to sit here wondering when he gets to hold her for the first time.”

Because of Yanes’s recent marriage to Walton and the birth of their new baby, Yanes’s attorney Carlos Martinez is optimistic about Yanes’s chance of being released in the near future, despite his two prior misdemeanors. “The marriage certificate and the birth certificate present a material ‘change in circumstances,’” said Martinez.

Brandi Yanes can’t imagine what she would have done if it wasn’t for El Refugio, and the volunteers who helped her find a place to stay near Atlanta and care for Mia. “I would’ve more than likely slept in my car and had very little to eat,” she says. “Everyone there has been a blessing.”

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