‘A huge burden’: Bail bonds for detained immigrants higher in Georgia

Georgia immigrants must pay high bonds to be released from ICE detention
The median bond amount granted by Georgia immigration courts to be released from ICE detention is higher than in any other state.

The median bond amount granted by Georgia immigration courts to be released from ICE detention is higher than in any other state.

In early 2020, Vanessa Pereira dedicated her life to a single pursuit: getting her husband out of ICE detention in southern Georgia.

Pereira’s partner, a Venezuelan national, began his stay inside the sprawling Stewart Detention Center on the first day of the year, after immigration enforcement discovered he had overstayed his visa and was living in the U.S. illegally — the result, Pereira says, of a mistake in her husband’s application for permanent residency. At the time, the couple was based in Warner Robbins.

Fearing a potential deportation to crisis-riddled Venezuela, Pereira hired an Atlanta area immigration attorney, who took on her husband’s case and successfully petitioned for him to be released on bail.

But to Pereira, the $8,000 bond set by the immigration judge was an expense she didn’t have the funds to cover. By that point, the family had already paid roughly $10,000 in legal fees. To post the bond, which had to be paid in full, Pereira considered selling her car.

“I didn’t have that money at all. I mean, can you imagine? … The only thing I could do was pray; pray a lot for a solution to be found,” she said.

Many other immigrant families have likely found themselves in the Pereiras’ shoes: the median bond amount granted by Georgia immigration courts is $8,000, the highest such figure in the nation. That’s according to analyses of court records through October 2021 by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a nonpartisan research organization at Syracuse University.

“It disappoints me that Georgia immigration courts seem to be setting higher bonds than other parts of the United States,” said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta-area immigration attorney. He has once witnessed a local judge set a bond amount as high as $100,000.

Judges consider the flight risk posed by a defendant when setting a bond, Kuck said. After being released from detention, immigrants must return for court dates to settle their immigration cases and a higher bond can ensure they do that.

“[But] is there a correlation between a higher bond and an appearance [in court]? I don’t think there is,” Kuck said. “Anecdotally, from my own experience having represented thousands of people in immigration court, there is no correlation at all.”

Aside from being home to the country’s biggest bond amounts, Georgia also ranks among the toughest states in the nation to secure asylum, with denial rates significantly higher than the national average.

The impact of high bonds

Unlike bonds in a criminal setting, where defendants can pay a percentage of the full bail to leave custody, immigration bonds must be paid in full.

Judges from the Department of Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts, make the final determination on the bond amount detained immigrants have to pay to be released. The statutory minimum is $1,500. There is no maximum cap.

Matt Boles is one of the few immigration attorneys living full-time in Lumpkin, Ga., south of Columbus near the Alabama line, where the Stewart Detention Center and Stewart immigration court are located. Boles is a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), a program started in 2017 to provide pro bono legal representation to immigrants in the Deep South.

He says he has never seen a judge set bail at the lowest possible amount. “It’s really alarming when there’s a really high bond balance and people are just stuck there because they can’t pay … And during a pandemic, no less, when you know that maybe if they had a lower bond, they could be released,” Boles said.

According to Boles and Kuck, most immigrants end up resorting to friends and family members to come up with money for bonds, which have remained high throughout the recent change in administrations in Washington.

“I don’t know of many regular people in immigrant communities who have thousands of dollars in cash right now. It puts a huge burden on the people, and it’s a reason why some are not able to be released from detention,” said Amilcar Valencia, the executive director of El Refugio, a nonprofit that supports immigrant detainees and their families.

Compounding the problem, according to Valencia, is the existence of “predatory” third-party bond agents, which charge immigrants high monthly fees in return for loaning them money to pay the bonds. One such company, Libre by Nexus, also requires customers to wear GPS-tracking ankle monitors.

For financial assistance without strings attached, some immigrant families are able to turn to bail funds at both the state and local level.

The Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) started the Georgia Immigration Bond Fund in 2019. So far, they have raised over $200,000 in donations and have helped 22 immigrants post bail, paying an average bond amount of $9,000.

Help from a bond fund, the National Bail Fund Network, is what helped Pereira pool together the money to post her husband’s bail. The couple has since relocated to South Florida, where Pereira’s husband is on track to receive his green card. There are no plans to ever come back to the Peach State.

“The situation we went through left us traumatized,” Pereira said. “It doesn’t make you want to go back there.”

Lautaro Grinspan is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.