Immigration detention surges in Georgia, up 50% from 2023

Recent policy changes at the state and national level could further drive up the number of detained migrants.
File photo. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

File photo. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The number of people in immigrant detention has surged in Georgia.

As of mid-May, the state housed a detained immigrant population of 2,408 — a nearly 54% increase compared to May 2023, according to an analysis of federal data by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

Among states, Georgia holds the fifth-largest number of people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention, second only to Louisiana among the non-border state.

The growth of Georgia’s detained immigrant population broadly reflects national trends. In May 2023, there were about 21,300 people in immigrant detention across the U.S. A year later, that number was roughly 36,500, a 70% rise. During that time span, the country saw some of the highest recorded tallies of illegal border crossings from Mexico.

Last month’s number of immigrants newly booked into detention — just over 28,000 — marked the highest level since the 2024 fiscal year began in October.

The expanded use of detention in Georgia has triggered alarm bells from local immigrant advocates who cite health and safety concerns — so far in 2024, two people have died while in Georgia ICE detention. The number of detained immigrants could continue to rise given recent policy changes at both the state and federal levels, including a new executive order by the Biden administration restricting access to the asylum application process for border crossers.

ICE did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Who are the people in Georgia immigration detention?

Arrests by one of two federal agencies can put immigrants without legal status on the pathway to detention. ICE conducts arrests in the interior of the country. Border Patrol apprehends people at the border after they’ve entered illegally, and then transfers at least some of them to ICE custody.

Those recent border crossers make up the brunt of the people in immigration detention.

In May, 19,654 immigrants were booked into detention following arrest at the border by Customs and Border Patrol, compared to just 8,429 who were detained by ICE after they had entered the country, according to TRAC data.

The makeup of people in immigrant detention in Georgia reflects that breakdown.

During a recent visit by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to the immigration court inside Stewart Detention Center — Georgia’s largest immigrant jail, located in the South Georgia town of Lumpkin — most of the detainees who came before the judge were people who had crossed the southern border weeks earlier.

Many sought to ward off deportation by applying for asylum, a humanitarian protection for people who face certain types of persecution or torture in their native countries.

Why are migrants getting sent all the way to Georgia from the border?

Capacity considerations dictate where people arrested at the border are sent to be detained.

“It can seem really random,” said Marty Rosenbluth, a Lumpkin-based attorney. “It’s a question of where they have empty beds.”

Stewart Detention Center absorbs the majority of Georgia’s immigrant detainees. The facility, managed by private prison company CoreCivic, housed an average of 1,528 detainees per day as of May 2024, according to TRAC. That makes Stewart the third-biggest immigrant jail nationwide, and the biggest outside of Texas. Its total maximum capacity exceeds 1,900 beds.

Rosenbluth says immigration authorities might also be incentivized to send migrants to Stewart because the asylum grant rates in Lumpkin’s immigration court are so low, with judges there denying 85% of cases, on average.

“If I wanted to be cynical, I would say that they send people to Stewart because it has one of the lowest asylum grant rates in the country. And they know it. They know it’s a really bad detention center where people, you know, very often would prefer to be deported than to spend five more minutes here,” he said.

Will immigration detention in Georgia continue to expand?

Experts say the likely answer is ‘yes.’

“I wouldn’t even say ‘expand.’ I would say ‘explode,’” Rosenbluth said.

In May, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed into a law a bill that mandates closer collaboration between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials.

Among other obligations, the bill compels Georgia’s sheriffs to notify ICE once they identify someone newly booked into jail who may be in the country illegally. Jailers must also honor requests by ICE to hold detainees in custody — even after they have posted bail — so that they can be picked up by immigration officials.

Under this framework, undocumented Georgia immigrants booked into jail could systemically find themselves on a path toward immigration detention and deportation.

At the national level, the Biden administration issued an executive order earlier this month that sharply limits asylum eligibility and seeks to increase deportations of migrants who cross the border illegally. But only select nationalities can be turned back to Mexico, meaning a significant number of those deemed ineligible for asylum might be funneled into the immigrant detention system to await a deportation flight.

“It is fair to say that Biden’s approach to immigration has become indistinguishable from his predecessor,” said Amilcar Valencia, co-founder of El Refugio, a nonprofit that aids Stewart detainees, in a statement.