Georgia doesn’t have the most illegal immigrants among the states. Not by far. That distinction, according to official estimates, falls to California.
But Georgia can claim it is tops in something else. It is home to the biggest and busiest jail in the nation for people facing deportation, federal records show.
On average, the privately run Stewart Detention Center in southwest Georgia held 1,614 detainees per day during the fiscal year ending in September. That is the most of any of the 252 jails where the federal government houses suspected illegal immigrants, according to figures supplied by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, Texas, ranked second with an average daily count of 1,527 detainees, followed by the Eloy Federal Contract Facility in Eloy, Ariz., with 1,487.
Stewart — which is located in Lumpkin and houses detainees from Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina — had the highest count partly because it can hold the most at 1,924.
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But ICE has also expanded its enforcement efforts in states that send suspects to Stewart, including Georgia. Among those efforts is a federal fingerprint-sharing program called “Secure Communities.” State legislators, meanwhile, are preparing to crack down on illegal immigration, which could send more people to one of several jails where the federal government holds people in Georgia.
Taxpayers, of course, are footing the bill for jailing illegal immigrants in the state and across the nation. ICE’s budget for detaining people stood at $1.77 billion last fiscal year. As of the end of December, ICE was holding 33,442 people in jails nationwide.
Activists have called on ICE to shut down Stewart and its other jails in Georgia, complaining they are located in isolated corners of the state far from immigrants’ families and attorneys. They have also urged ICE to use less expensive alternatives to detention, such as freeing immigrants on bond and requiring them to check in with the government periodically.
“We are putting a whole bunch of money into a failed immigration system,” said Anton Flores-Maisonet of Georgia Detention Watch, a coalition of organizations seeking the closure of all ICE jails in Georgia. “And in the end, the only people who are going to profit are the private prison industries that we are contracting with here in Georgia.”
Critics say suspected illegal immigrants could flee while on bond.
“You have to hold people, especially in immigration, because the flight risk is huge,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that advocates for tighter immigration controls.
Federal immigration officials said they are required to hold certain offenders in their detention centers, including those who have committed violent crimes. They said they keep tabs on others by making them wear electronic monitoring devices. ICE had a $69.9 million budget for such alternatives last fiscal year.
“One of our long-term goals is ensuring key detention facilities are located near the site of apprehensions, legal service providers, hospitals and medical providers, immigration courts and transportation hubs,” ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said. “This nationwide evaluation is ongoing.”
Corrections Corp. of America, a $1.6 billion business based in Nashville, owns and operates the Stewart jail. Federal taxpayers pay Stewart County $60.50 per inmate held at that jail per day through an agreement with ICE. That works out to $97,647 per day, based on last fiscal year’s average daily inmate count.
The county, however, keeps only 85 cents per inmate per day for its administrative costs and pays CCA the rest, or $59.65 per inmate per day. Since 2007, the county has collected about $1.7 million through this arrangement, county officials said. That represents more than half of the small county’s $3 million annual operating budget.
The jail is the county’s largest employer with about 340 workers, most of whom are from the local area, CCA and county officials said. Jobs are crucial in Stewart, where nearly one in five families live below the federal poverty level, according to U.S. census figures.
Some detainees are sent to ICE jails after they are caught crossing the border illegally or overstaying visas. Most in Stewart wound up there after being charged with other crimes, some as minor as traffic offenses, others as serious as rape, robbery and murder. They aren’t sent to Stewart, however, until after they complete sentences for any crimes they commit in the United States. Some are transferred to Stewart from state prisons and county jails. Most are originally from Central America and South America.
Those held at the jail wear color-coded uniforms and are segregated, based on the crimes they have committed. The most violent criminals wear red, while the least violent wear blue.
ICE and CCA officials gave a reporter from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution a roughly hourlong tour of the jail. Dozens of detainees were observed quietly watching television, reading and making phone calls from large rooms where they sleep on bunk beds. Others are held in two-man quarters. Some of the detainees were playing soccer in a fenced-in courtyard. They also have access to Wii video games and library.
Detainees can voluntarily work for $1 to $3 a day cooking and cleaning, said Mike Swinton, the jail’s warden. They can save that money or spend it on MoonPies, pork rinds, chicken ramen noodles or other goods sold in the jail store.
Oscar Leon, 25, who lived in Norcross, spent two months in Stewart late last year before he was deported to Mexico. He said he was struck by how many detainees passed through Stewart. Hundreds leave each week, but buses routinely pull up to the jail, carrying more people to replace them, said the Phoenix High School graduate. Leon was sent to Stewart last year after pleading guilty to driving without a license in Georgia.
“It’s just like a well-oiled machine, you know,” Leon said in a telephone interview last month from the jail. “One in, one out. One in, one out. It’s amazing how many people come in and out in one week.”