Protesters: Shut down ICE detention centers in Georgia

A coalition of human rights groups on Thursday called for the closure of several immigration detention centers in Georgia, citing the recent deaths of two detainees.

“We need to shut these detention centers down. America is not going to imprison its way out of fixing the immigration problem,” said Lovette Kargbo Thompson, Atlanta organizer for Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

Kargbo Thompson was joined outside U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s downtown Atlanta offices by dozens of activists from Georgia Detention Watch, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and Project South. Chanting “Shut down ICE,” some of the demonstrators carried signs declaring, “Not One More Deportation” and “Expose and Close Stewart Detention Center.”

On Monday of last week, authorities at Stewart — a sprawling detention center in southwest Georgia —  discovered a Panamanian national had committed suicide by hanging himself in his solitary confinement cell. He had been isolated for 19 days. A day later, an Indian national who ICE was holding at the Atlanta City Detention Center died at Grady Memorial Hospital from what the government says were complications from congestive heart failure.

RELATED: Group: Visit with ICE detainee in Georgia was blocked before he died

ICE spokesman Bryan Cox released a prepared statement saying his agency “fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion peacefully without interference.” He also quoted U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly in saying: “ICE will continue to enforce our nation’s laws to protect public safety, national security and to preserve the integrity of our immigration system.”

Cox added this month’s fatalities are the first deaths of ICE detainees in Georgia in more than six years. Nationwide during the fiscal year ending in September of last year, nine out of 352,000 ICE detainees died, he said.

The protestors also cited the case of Vitaly Novikov, 62, an ICE detainee who has pursued a long-running hunger strike to protest his impending deportation. Concerned about his health, a federal judge in Georgia this month took the extraordinary step of giving ICE permission to force-feed Novikov and to restrain him if he resists.

Cox said Wednesday there no longer were any detainees at Stewart on “hunger strike status.” But Novikov disputed that in a telephone call Thursday morning, saying he still was refusing to eat and that the authorities at Stewart had not attempted to force-feed him.

The retired machine shop worker, who fled persecution in the Soviet Union as a Pentecostal Christian 28 years ago, worries he will be killed if he is deported to his native Donetsk amid fierce fighting there between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists.

IN-DEPTH: Facing deportation, detainee in Georgia refuses food

“I am still not taking food and feeling so bad,” he said, adding that he is dizzy and not walking. “Only staying in the bed.”