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Filed 12:00 a.m.
12.12.2016

America’s Toughest Immigration Court

Welcome to Stewart Detention Center, the black hole of the immigration system.

Omar Arana Romero came to the United States from Mexico in 1994. Turned in by his bosses at the chemical plant where he held a temp job, he has been at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., for over a year. Audra Melton for The Marshall Project

To get to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., drive two-and-a-half hours southwest from Atlanta along the interstate, which follows the curve of the Chattahoochee River. The city of Columbus, which is 40 miles outside Lumpkin, is your last chance to find a hotel, tap into wifi, or have reliable cell service. After that, the landscape primarily consists of red dirt and vine-covered trees. You’ll know you’re in downtown Lumpkin when you see the line of closed storefronts, a sun-bleached gas station, and a gun store.

This article was published in partnership with Vice.

Ten minutes outside of town on CCA Road — named for the private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America — is Stewart, one of the most remote immigration detention centers in the country. Stewart has become an essential moneymaker for the area. In 2012, it provided 20 percent of the county’s revenue, money generated from the roughly 1,700 beds that are filled with men waiting to find out whether they’ll be deported from the United States.

Chances are, they will be.

Stewart, and the adjoining immigration court that determines the fate of all its detainees, has the highest deportation rate in the country. That’s in part because the detainees at Stewart are among the least likely to find an immigration attorney. Lawyers simply don’t live anywhere near Lumpkin, and few are willing to take the hours-long trek to meet with clients — clients who, for the most part, can’t afford their services.

Last year, less than 2 percent of the men at Stewart won their cases.

In August 2015, Omar Arana Romero was hoping to be among that small minority. He was sitting empty-handed on a wooden bench in Judge Saundra Arrington’s courtroom alongside 10 or so other men. Arrington is one of four judges who decide more than 6,000 Stewart immigration cases each year. That day, Romero was afraid. It was his third time in that courtroom since he arrived at Stewart that June, and he didn’t really know what was going on. He doesn’t speak English and didn’t have a lawyer.

Soon a court clerk checked Romero’s plastic ID badge and motioned for him to sit at the table in front of Arrington’s bench. Romero put on the headphones that would allow him to hear the Spanish translator.

According to Romero, Arrington asked whether he had been able to find a lawyer since his last hearing. No, he told her, I can’t afford one.

Well, I gave you enough time to find one, she told him, so we will proceed with your deportation case.

The Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., has the highest deportation rate in the country.

Back in June 2015, Romero had shown up for his first day at a temp job at a chemical plant 30 minutes from where he lived in Bay City, Texas. Manual labor was nothing new for him — he had spent the last several years supporting his three children doing everything from installing carpet to working in a plant nursery and in the Texas oil fields. When the job site supervisors asked for his social security card, he gave them a fake one. But his bosses at the chemical plant found him out. They called the cops, who soon called immigration officials.

It was the first time Romero had gotten into trouble with Immigration and Customs Enforcement since he came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1994. He had been arrested before — in 2003 and 2004 for drunk driving while living in Colorado, and once, in 2012, for cocaine possession, receiving probation for all three convictions. ICE never got involved.

Romero blames his past indiscretions in part on the trauma and pressures that followed the violent 2004 death of his daughter, Rosa. While Romero was at work, his then-wife beat the 6-year-old girl for misbehaving, and she soon died of a stomach injury. His ex-wife was sentenced to 60 years in prison. Romero’s three younger children were taken by Child Protective Services but returned to their father a month later. He’s been their sole parent ever since.

Standing before Judge Arrington, Romero’s voice caught in his throat. He wanted to convince her to give him a chance, to plead for more options, but he worried about saying something that would accidentally hurt his case.

He proceeded with caution, hoping to win the judge’s sympathy. He told her that as a single parent, he was both mom and dad.

According to Romero, she told him to take his children with him to Mexico.

But they were born here, he replied, they are used to the United States.

When they’re 18, she told him, they can move back.

And with that, the hearing was finished. Romero went back to his bunk bed and wept.

S tewart is one of more than 40 privately run facilities across the country that holds those facing deportation. Where immigrants end up is a matter of geography and chance. If they’re arrested in the Southeast part of the country, there’s a good possibility they’ll be sent to Stewart. But if those men had been sent to the detention center in Miami, for example, their futures could be far different: They would be over three times more likely to get an attorney, and 10 times more likely to stay in the U.S.

And unlike in criminal cases, where defendants have a right to a lawyer even if they cannot afford one, immigrants facing deportation have no such guarantees. Poorer families have to either scrape together about $7,000 for a private lawyer or hope to find a pro bono or legal aid attorney willing to take their case for free. Which at Stewart, is nearly impossible.

Deportation Rates for Immigration Courts
This chart shows the percent of immigration cases that ended in deportation in fiscal year 2015.
Source: U.S. Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review

A September report from the American Immigration Council found that from 2007 to 2012, only 6 percent of men at Stewart had an attorney. That’s less than half the national rate for immigrants in detention.

Having a lawyer has a huge impact on every facet of a case. Immigration is a particularly complicated, discretionary area of law with fewer constitutional safeguards. Without an attorney, immigrants might not know what kind of relief they are eligible for, how to compile an application for asylum, or how their previous criminal record could affect their immigration status. Research shows that immigrants who have lawyers are more likely to have a bond hearing in the first place and be released while their cases are decided, more likely to submit an application for relief, and are up to 14 times more likely to win their cases and remain in the U.S.

A spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the Justice Department agency in charge of immigration courts, wrote in an email that the office recognizes the importance of legal representation and “has several initiatives in place to encourage representation.” At Stewart, detainees can take an orientation program run by Catholic Charities that tries to explain everything from the players in the courtroom to complicated U.S. asylum law.

Detainees are also provided a “list of free legal service providers” — but three of the four attorneys listed are no longer taking on pro bono cases out of Stewart.

Without a lawyer, many detainees are left to rely on friends and family on the outside to help them find a way to stay.

Lumpkin, Ga., is a two-and-a-half hour drive southwest from Atlanta.

Kimberly Griffith was the only person left able to help her now-husband, Carlos Marroquin Lopez, when he was at Stewart in 2013. Marroquin Lopez first came to the United States in 1998, leaving behind his high-crime neighborhood in Guatemala in hopes of earning a living wage. The two met and started dating while working at a grocery store in North Carolina. She was a night manager, he cleaned the floors. Marroquin Lopez was pulled over while driving without a license (at the time, he was unable to get one in North Carolina as an undocumented immigrant), and a week later, transferred to the detention center in Lumpkin. He had no criminal record but had been deported once before.

Griffith, a U.S. citizen, soon found herself trying to navigate a system she had never encountered before. “I was networking with people through Facebook and reading articles trying to see what I could do,” she says. “I called 10 or 12 different attorneys. Nobody wanted to take it. I had several tell me, ‘Stewart is so far away. It’s out in the middle of nowhere.’”

Griffith visited Marroquin Lopez eight times in the three months he was detained, often driving five hours to Stewart, visiting for an hour, then turning around and driving five hours home. Sometimes, she spent the night at a free “hospitality house” for family members set up by immigrant rights nonprofit El Refugio. There are no hotels in Lumpkin.

Eventually, the two gave up on finding a lawyer and fighting his case. Marroquin Lopez was deported to Guatemala in June 2013, and Griffith followed a month later.

“I guess if I had been wealthy, I could have fought it,” she says. “But the system’s not designed for everyday people.”

For those without a support system in the U.S., the situation is even more difficult.

Sadam Hussein Ali, 21, has been in Stewart for more than a year. Al Shabab, a terrorist group in his home country of Somalia, had begun threatening his family, saying they were going to take his younger sister over unpaid, illegitimate taxes they had levied on the family business. Members of al Shabab beat him and threw him in jail for 15 days before Hussein Ali was able to escape. He took his sister and fled to a refugee camp in Kenya, where she was able to hide from the men by donning a burqa.

Hussein Ali then flew to Brazil, traveled for three months across South and Central America on foot and by bus, and turned himself in at the U.S.-Mexico border, where he told officers he was seeking asylum. He was sent to a detention center in Texas for 10 days. Then he was transferred to Stewart.

Under President Barack Obama, the number of detained asylum seekers like Hussein-Ali increased nearly three-fold from 2010 to 2014. In FY 2014, roughly 77 percent of immigrants seeking asylum, many of them women and children, were detained while their cases were decided, instead of being released on parole or bond, as many used to be. That's more than 44,000 asylum seekers in detention.

Sadam Hussein Ali says he left Somalia because al Shabab was threatening his family. Once in the United States, he was transferred to Stewart Detention Center and was unable to find pro bono legal help. Denied asylum, he is waiting to be deported back to Somalia.

The chances of being released on parole from Stewart are especially slim. In 2015, according to data analyzed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, not a single detainee at Stewart was released on parole, compared with 6 percent of detainees nationwide. Half as many men get out of Stewart on bond compared with their counterparts nationwide. And when they do, those bonds are on average $5,500 higher.

At Stewart, Hussein Ali called more than 10 lawyers looking for pro bono help. Many didn’t pick up. The few who did either denied him outright or said they’d charge him $5,000. He had just spent his entire savings of $10,000 to get to the United States. When he arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, he had $460 left. Now he makes barely enough working in the Stewart kitchen to pay for phone calls to law offices and his family.

The only way he was able to fill out his asylum application at all was with the help of an older, Somali detainee who had been there three months longer and spoke better English.

The application was denied in March, and Hussein Ali, like many of his friends, decided not to appeal the judge’s decision. He figured it was hopeless after seeing man after man lose his case. “If I got a lawyer, I think it would be better,” he says. “I think I’m in the hardest place in the U.S.”

He’s now waiting to be deported back to Somalia.

“If I die, I die,” he says.

Downtown Lumpkin has a row of storefronts including a taxidermy shop, a sun-bleached gas station, and a gun store.

O utside 4-Way BBQ, one of two restaurants in Lumpkin, there used to be a sign that read “IMMIGRATION LAWYER” and listed a 1-800 number — that no one answered. (The sign was removed in November). Near Stewart’s entrance is another ad for an immigration attorney, in Spanish, listing an address that leads to a tax preparation office and a phone number that has been disconnected. And on the side of the road just past Stewart is a sign, slightly trampled in the grass, with a Houston phone number for immigration lawyer Elaine Morley. When asked whether she still takes cases there, Morley sighs.

“That place is horrible,” she says before launching into a litany of frustrations: the distance, the lack of accommodations, the high denial rate, the difficulty getting in touch with clients. She’s heard similar stories from other lawyers. That’s why after just one case, she stopped. “I won’t ever go back there,” she says.

Leigh Ann Webster, an immigration attorney in Atlanta, worked on two cases out of Stewart before vowing never again. “There’s no way, as a private attorney, you can charge enough to really make that worth it to me,” she says.

Elizabeth Matherne, an immigration lawyer based in Atlanta, represented men at Stewart for more than five years before deciding to stop taking on new clients. She had tried to recruit more lawyers to take on cases there, despite the challenges. “It is a whole day of being out of the office and completely out of touch,” she says. “You have to go like you were going back in time.” Matherne often had to leave her home at 4 a.m. to make it to an 8 a.m. hearing. And the resources at the facility themselves, she says, are particularly outdated. “You’re not going to have access to Internet, fax...anything. You had to saddle up the night before and make sure you had every single thing you would need.”

The difficulties for most lawyers don’t end when lawyers pull into the Stewart parking lot. Several have complained about arbitrary rules imposed by CCA, which recently rebranded as CoreCivic. Facilities run by private companies such as Core Civic are subject to far less oversight than publicly-run facilities. Unlike at other detention centers, lawyers say they aren’t able to schedule free legal phone calls with their clients. Instead, detainees must save up enough money for a calling card and hope to catch their lawyer by phone. The facility was supposed to install a video-conferencing system in 2014, according to their contract, but it took them until this August after a host of complaints to comply.

If they’re meeting their clients in person, lawyers say they are made to wait hours and are often denied outright and without justification. When they are allowed in, they are separated from their clients by a thick sheet of Plexiglas and can speak only by phone. There was a few months last winter when the phones were broken. Lawyers had no choice but to shout to their clients through the glass.

In response to a March letter listing such complaints, ICE officials said lawyers’ recommendations for improvement were being “actively researched and reviewed.” They noted that rules regarding attorney visits were posted in the waiting area, and that the phones had since been fixed.

CoreCivic has not responded to the letter. In an email, spokesman Jonathan Burns wrote that “attorneys can visit detainees at any time during visiting hours, unscheduled, by presenting a proper photo I.D. and verification of bar admission. No time limit is placed on these visits.” He denied that phones had been inoperable or that attorneys are unable to schedule calls with their clients.

In August, the Department of Homeland Security said it would “review” phasing out its contracting with private prison companies, following the lead of the Bureau of Prisons. But they announced earlier this month that they would continue their use, given “fiscal considerations” and the need to handle “sudden increases in detention.” Indeed, under President-elect Donald Trump, ICE seems likely to greatly expand its use of immigration detention — CoreCivic’s share price shot up in the wake of his election.

Some judges say the remote location of detention centers makes their job tougher, too. In October, a group of former immigration judges wrote to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson asking him to rethink ICE’s increasing use of detention, as it impeded due process in immigration courts. Johnson has not responded.

“When people aren’t represented, how can you do a fair job?” says Paul Wickham Schmidt, a former immigration judge and former chairman of the Board of Immigration Appeals. Isolating a few judges to see only detained cases, Schmidt says, also creates a culture where granting relief is the exception, not the rule. Locating detention centers in rural areas “seems more or less designed to discourage people from getting meaningful representation and fighting to stay in the U.S.”

Immigration attorneys and advocates filed a complaint this summer with the Executive Office for Immigration Review, alleging that judges at Stewart violate detainees’ due process. Detainees reported that they were discouraged from appealing decisions, not given full instructions on their asylum applications, and denied access to the orientation program run by Catholic Charities.

The office is evaluating their complaints and has not yet issued a response.

A sign belonging to a lawyer who no longer works with clients at Stewart Detention Center.

Romero has been detained at Stewart for nearly a year.

ICE officials initially took him to the detention center in Port Isabel, Texas, less than a five-hour drive from his house. His girlfriend of seven years, Cilvia Reyes, got to work immediately trying to find a lawyer. She found one whose office was less than an hour away from the facility and who, for a few thousand dollars, would help Romero apply for a visa.

The attorney could easily drive and visit Romero, where they’d work together to prepare his application — which required letters of community support from friends and family and various court documents. But their efforts ground to a halt a week after Romero landed in Port Isabel, when he was told to pack up and get ready to move. Romero was flown four states and 1,000 miles away to Georgia. Except for a brief stint in a New Mexico detention center when it appeared he might be deported, Romero remained in Stewart.

Romero’s visa lawyer could not represent him at Stewart; it was too far away for what they were able to pay. So Reyes tried finding someone closer. Their closest and best chance of finding representation was to call a lawyer 150 miles away, in Atlanta. The answer, however, was always the same.

As someone with three convictions, Romero would be a priority for deportation. But he may be able to stay in the country if approved for a U visa, a special type of immigration relief designated for crime victims.

He had hoped he could be released from detention while his visa application was being processed so he could still take care of his children, who are now 17, 16, and 14 years old. But his drug offense meant he could be subject to mandatory detention under immigration law and was not entitled to a bond hearing. He tried to sue for one, but without a lawyer, he has been unable win his release.

His children are scattered, living with their aunt and family friends in Houston while their father sits in detention. Reyes recently moved in with her mother when she couldn’t afford their apartment on her own.

“Since the day I was picked up by Immigration...I can’t sleep nor can I function properly... because they have separated me from my children again,” Romero wrote in a court declaration in January.

“He’s been my father and mother…Yall need to understand I can’t do this alone,” his oldest daughter, Jennifer, wrote in a letter included in his visa application. “My father is the only person I have left.”

Romero wanted to be transferred to a detention center closer to home so his children could visit. He hasn’t seen them in more than a year. “Every day I ask god to move me to another place closer to my kids. I am desperate,” he wrote in a letter in June.

ICE spokesman Bryan Cox says he could not comment on Romero’s specific case, but “in general, ICE’s civil detention system aims to reduce transfers, maximize access to counsel and visitation,” he wrote in an email. “ICE places detainees based on available resources and the needs of the agency.”

In the meantime, Romero tries to use the law library in Stewart, even though the resources are mostly in English. Reyes Googles for legal advice, but since she’s not at his hearings, it’s difficult to know what to look for. Romero found some help from a fellow detainee who was an attorney in his home country of Venezuela. He guided Romero through filling out paperwork he needed for court and to try and win a bond hearing. But their arrangement ended in July when he, too, was deported.

Romero’s most recent hearing was November 15. It lasted only a few minutes, he says. Though he has yet to find out whether he’s been approved for a visa, the judge told him that he had run out of time. She ordered him deported. A friend in the detention center gave Romero the phone number for an attorney in Atlanta, who charges $150 for just an initial meeting. Reyes is trying to scrape together some money, and the two are selling their car for cash.

If Romero does not file an appeal by Thursday, he will be deported.

“I want to get out of here...I’m worried about my kids,” he says on a crackly call from the detention center. “They’re waiting for me.”

After reading this story, a North Carolina attorney offered to represent Omar Arana Romero for free and took on his case. But it was too late. Romero was deported to Mexico on Jan. 19. He is still waiting for a decision on his visa application, which could allow him to return to the United States.