For immigration advocates, end of ICE detention in Irwin County is a bittersweet victory



“What happened is definitely not what we were hoping for”

In September 2020, a whistleblower complaint alleging medical malpractice drew national attention to Irwin County Detention Center, fueling calls to close the South Georgia jail.

A year later, no U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees are held in Irwin County, but some advocates say that the ICE pullout has not met their expectations. Roughly 40 ICE detainees were transferred to other immigrant detention facilities.

“If they are going to close it, they should really close it,” said Li Ann Sánchez, executive director of Community Estrella, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that supports trans and gender-nonconforming people in ICE custody.

Sánchez is a former detainee. A transgender woman from Mexico, Sánchez was held in Georgia immigrant detention facilities for nearly a year, beginning in 2012. At Irwin, she says, she was placed in solitary confinement and spent weeks at a time locked inside a cold, dark cell that made it impossible to tell if it was day or night.

“I’m still dealing with mental health issues,” said Sánchez, who now lives in Atlanta. “I still have trouble sleeping sometimes. And when I do sleep, the second I close my eyes, all of these really, really, really awful memories come flooding back.”

Sánchez also says she was the victim of verbal and sexual harassment. One day, she said, a guard showed her his genitals, paralyzing her with fear as she recalled being beaten, stabbed with an ice pick, thrown off a bridge and raped in Mexico.

“I became even more traumatized than I already was,” said Sánchez, who was detained after being convicted of driving without a license, driving under the influence and drug possession. Her attorneys say her alcohol and substance abuse were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder brought on persecution in her home country.

David Paulk, Irwin’s warden, said in a statement, “The responsibility to protect those in our custody is paramount and LaSalle Corrections is firmly committed to the health and welfare of our detained populations. LaSalle Corrections remains diligent in operating ICDC at the highest level, providing safe, secure and humane surroundings for our staff, those in our custody and the communities in which we operate.”

Among the facilities detainees have been transferred to is the Stewart County Detention Center in Lumpkin. Four people there have died of COVID-19, more than in any other ICE detention facility in the nation.

“What happened is definitely not what we were hoping for,” said Amilcar Valencia, executive director of El Refugio, a nonprofit that supports immigrant detainees at Stewart Detention Center and their families.

Laura Rivera is the co-founder of the Sur Legal Collaborative, an immigrant and workers’ rights non-profit based in Atlanta, and has provided legal representation to immigrants held at Irwin. On Thursday, Sur Legal, El Refugio, Community Estrella and other immigration advocates participated in a rally in front of ICE’s Atlanta Field Office to demand an end to immigration detention.

“I was extremely disappointed that ICE missed this opportunity to release the people it had in custody at Irwin and instead chose to transfer them to other detention centers,” she said. “We hope and expect that the energy that has been focused on Irwin continues to build, so there’s a day when there’s no more immigrants that are caged in Georgia, period.”

Starting in the fall of 2019, after being charged with a DUI, Nilson Barahona-Marriaga spent nearly seven months at Irwin County Detention Center. Since he was released, the decades-long Atlanta-area resident has gotten involved in immigrants’ rights activism.

“When I left detention, I made the decision to keep talking about it. I wanted that place to close,” he said. “I feel like that has been accomplished. But now our goal has expanded.”

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