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.”