‘I’d rather be deported’: In this Georgia immigration court, hope is scarce

Migrants held in the remote Stewart Detention Center have scant resources to build asylum cases.
Stewart Detention Center (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Stewart Detention Center (AP Photo/David Goldman)

On a recent Monday morning, Georgia immigration Judge Carmen Maria Rey Caldas found herself dispensing the same life-altering verdict time after time.

“I’m ordering you removed … Good luck to you.”

Rey Caldas presided over dozens of dazed-looking migrants dressed in monochromatic prison frocks, some in orange, some in blue, others in red. The courtroom they clustered in was located inside one of the country’s busiest immigrant jails: the remote town of Lumpkin’s Stewart Detention Center.

It was the site where many found out they were going to be deported.

For most migrants subject to deportation, building a case compelling enough to convince a judge to keep them in the country is an uphill climb. For people in detention, that task is herculean, experts say, with less time and fewer resources at their disposal.

“The phrase that I often use is that the immigration courts have, you know, many rules and many laws, but there is no real justice … It’s just so rushed,” said Marty Rosenbluth, a Lumpkin-based attorney.

On the recent Monday, most of the people before the judge had illegally crossed the southern border weeks prior. They were part of a recent and record-setting surge in migration that elevated immigration and border security as an issue of top concern among the U.S. electorate heading into this year’s presidential race. Because of limited government resources, border authorities have been releasing many of the migrants they’ve apprehended. As a result, newcomers, many of them destitute, have been straining local budgets across the U.S. Immigration courts are so backlogged that most won’t have to worry about coming face-to-face with a judge for several years.

But those who do end up in detention after crossing the border are on an expedited timeline. Their make-it-or-break-it courtroom moment comes up in a matter of weeks. Seeking more time to prepare for hearings could increase their odds of success, but doing so for Stewart detainees would mean extending their stay in a privately-run jail that advocates say is particularly inhospitable.

The government “uses detention as a litigation strategy,” Rosenbluth said. “Because they know that many people will just give up rather than fight their cases.”

For some on Monday, the conditions of detention sapped their will to try to stay in the country.

“This is too exhausting. I don’t want to be here anymore … I’d rather be deported,” a Cuban detainee told Rey Caldas. “I’m afraid to go back. Who wants to live under a dictatorship like Cuba’s? But what choice do I have?”

After the man complained about his lack of funds to hire a lawyer, Rey Caldas suggested he could try to fill an application for asylum and present it to the court by himself. Asylum is a humanitarian protection for people who can prove they are at risk of persecution in their home country.

The Cuban detainee rejected that idea as naive.

“I don’t know anything about the laws,” he told the judge. “What’s the point of starting a case I am bound to lose?”

The judge empathized: “This process is complicated.”

Another detainee, from Honduras, said he was tortured by a gang back home, but he’d grown hopeless in detention and wanted to be deported. The court had previously provided a number for free legal resources, but he said he “kept calling” and no one ever picked up.

“My children depend on me. I can’t continue being locked up,” he told the judge.

“I am happy to be guided by your wishes,” she said in response.

The Stewart Detention Center on Monday, May 6. (Lautaro Grinspan)

Credit: Lautaro Grinspan

icon to expand image

Credit: Lautaro Grinspan

The immigrant detainees who were brought before Rey Caldas on Monday weren’t all recent arrivals who’d entered illegally. At least two had lived in the U.S. for years before being arrested on drug-related charges. One of them, a Dominican national who had been in the country since 2019, had a green card at the moment of his arrest, but it was revoked, and he was now subject to deportation.

Regardless of their individual backstories, all migrants who were ordered deported received the same warning from the judge: Consequences for attempting to reenter the U.S. post-deportation include “a substantial time in prison.”

‘It’s pretty wild’

Unlike people facing criminal charges in the U.S. justice system, immigrants fighting deportation are not entitled to legal representation — and lack of legal counsel effectively puts any chances of a court victory out of reach.

On Monday, just three of the migrants in Rey Caldas’ hearings had lawyers assisting them, all of whom join the courtroom via video conference. Few lawyers make the trip to Stewart because of its remote location, 140 miles southwest of Atlanta.

According to a 2018 study, detained immigrants without legal counsel prevail in only 3% of their cases. When they are represented by a lawyer, they are over 10 times more likely to establish a right to remain in the U.S. For immigrants who aren’t in detention, 60% of those with legal representation win their cases, compared to 17% of those without it.

For many migrants who’ve entered the country illegally and are facing deportation, their only plausible defense is to make a claim for asylum.

But asylum has strict eligibility requirements, with migrants having to prove they face persecution in their home country because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. That’s a standard most applicants in recent years haven’t been able to meet.

To file a claim, forms must be filled out in English, and supporting evidence and testimonies must be sourced from applicants’ home countries and translated into English. Then, the asylum claim must be litigated before the court.

“The expectations that in those circumstances [detention], people going to be able to put together coherent, complete legal arguments in English, it’s pretty wild. It doesn’t make sense,” said Erin Argueta, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s not the best way to meet our values or protect people or get their full stories.”

Known as one of the country’s toughest courts, Stewart and its judges denied over 85% of asylum claims considered between 2018 and 2023, according to federal data compiled by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution witnessed additional logistical hurdles detainees must contend with.

Two Central American migrants were unable to proceed with their hearings altogether because they didn’t speak Spanish but rather Kichwa and Qʼeqchiʼ, indigenous tongues. Rey Caldas called two different translation services to get an interpreter on the line, but she was informed that no one was available.

That isn’t an uncommon situation.

“You get rare language speakers and no one else at the detention center speaks their language, there are no resources in their language,” Argueta said. “The court can’t get an interpreter and they go eight months or maybe more than a year just waiting, and they are never spoken to in their language.”

“I’m so sorry,” Rey Caldas told the Kichwa and Qʼeqchiʼ speakers as she pushed their hearing back a month into the future, prolonging their stay in detention, in the hopes they would have better luck finding an interpreter next time.

It seems likely that the men didn’t understand this at all.

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