OCILLA — The South Georgia Immigrant Support Network (SGISN) recently acquired a hospitality house just miles away from the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) where families of detainees can stay before and after visitations.
Getting the home has taken a year to accomplish, but after weeks of prep, and still more to go, the house, dubbed Casa Colibri (Hummingbird House), is set to be fully operational.
The hospitality house is not the first of its kind. Other similar organizations have created homes to allow visiting families of immigrant detainees a free place to stay during stressful and uncertain times.
In Lumpkin, near Stewart Detention Center, is hospitality home El Refugio (The Refuge).
El Refugio, while providing physical comfort, also provides necessary information on contacting and visiting relatives in detention, like dress code and locating relatives, as well as a sense of caring.
On Sunday, April 29, members of SGISN met at the home for a dinner meeting and to drop off donated goods.
It felt like an ant farm where busy workers carried in beds, mattresses, chairs, boxes and hot dishes covered by wrinkled aluminum foil and saran wrap.
In the kitchen, Russell Pryor, assistant professor of history at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, sifted through boxes of donated kitchenware, including two kitschy ceramic ducks. Their arrival incited bemusement from the group. His wife, Lisa Seibert, academic support counselor at ABAC, polished donated furniture and sorted through bowls, plates, spoons and scoops.
A pile of donated goods waits to be sorted in the front bedroom. Comforters and bedding, still encased in thick plastic, create a mini mountain range across the floor. Child sized bed frames and mattresses lean against walls and faux fireplaces in anticipation of the visiting children who will sleep there.
The living room, so far sparsely furnished, is enough to seat volunteers before their shared meal.
The volunteers and board members, made up of professors, religious leaders and concerned citizens, dug into homemade lasagna, fresh baked bread and pasta salad. The dining room windows were open circulating a late spring breeze. The table was packed with conversation making the blank walls homey.
The SGISN is interested in recreating the El Refugio model, adding traditional southern hospitality to the experience, where guests are treated with respect, dignity and offered at least one ice cold glass of sweet tea.
“This is the America we want,” said Cyndy Hall, associate professor of English and director for the honors program at ABAC.
“This is the South Georgia we want,” said Pryor.
The people around the table are invested community members who, they all agreed, aren’t going anywhere.
“This is our home, too,” Pryor said.
Jess Usher, assistant professor of history, continued the thought. Not only are they members of the community, but the people detained are, too.
The home will provide meals to families, as well as beds and entertainment.
“When the breadwinner of the family has been detained it leaves that family in financial strain, and [when] traveling long distances a lot of times they can barely afford to get the gas to get here much less a hotel,” said Ric Stewart, a local pastor.
This is where Casa Colibri (Hummingbird House) comes in. Like El Refugio, volunteers with the group will be available to help visiting families for emotional support and information.
For instance, detainees cannot receive phone calls. Those detained at ICDC are required to use a calling card to make contact with their families and legal support.
A survey conducted by Project South, a “Southern-based leadership development organization” that regularly conducts research on pertinent issues across the south, released a report in May 2017 on the conditions of Georgia detention centers including ICDC. One of the biggest issues for detainees in Stewart and ICDC is the location of facilities. Project South reports in “Imprisoned Justice” the location of ICDC “poses significant problems for family members and attorneys.”
Attorney-client relationships often end when detainees are moved to a facility out of state and “it also makes it almost impossible for some detained immigrants to see their families.”
At the meeting, the group tried to characterize the people they’ve met in detention. Stewart has volunteered with immigrant rights organizations for about 10 years now. He said he never worked with a detainee that fit the stereotype.
The stereotype is of the young, working Hispanic male sending money home for his family. However, the immigrant detainees in ICDC have come from Romania, Uganda, Nigeria, Mexico and the United Kingdom to name a few. Others are asylum seekers, people seeking refuge from violence and/or persecution at home.
They are immediately detained, waiting until their case is heard. They will either be released from the detention center or deported. Some wait years to find out. They said often detainees are female including single-mothers, teenage girls and women.
At the facility, visitors are separated by glass and have to use a telephone to speak to one another.
“Some of the inmates have not had outside contact in years” said Kevin Joachin, ABAC student and SGISN member.
Despite the circumstances, said Leeann Culbreath, a local deacon, they are still able to make a human connection. She called it a “deeply hopeful experience.” Culbreath and other volunteers have been able to correspond with detainees. They give each other hope.
“It builds all of us up,” said Culbreath.
According to the findings in “Imprisoned Justice,” ICDC contracted with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2010 to house detained immigrants. The facility is owned by Irwin County and operated by LaSalle Corrections. The facility’s maximum capacity is 1,201 and, unlike Stewart Detention Center who only houses males, the facility houses male and female immigrant detainees.
Joachin called Casa Colibri a “beacon of hope.”
“Many people do not even know what detention centers are or that they are close to their homes,” said Joachin. “For Irwin county residents, Casa Colibri will provide a way to understand the local Chicano and undocumented community.”
So far the group has seen a massive outpouring of support. In Savannah, civic leader Coco Papy helped organize a donation drive for the home. Culbreath stacked the bed of her truck with donated items from the donation drive. Stewart drove to Macon, and has another trip planned, where he too will load his vehicle with goods for the home.
“There’s really been an overwhelming outpouring of support,” Stewart said.
As plates were scrapped clean in Casa Colibri’s dining room, the group reflected on their motivations. Why spend their time, money and effort on those detained at ICDC? Culbreath explained that detainees have basic human rights, as everyone does, afforded and founded in the constitution. She later quoted Georgia Detention Watch which is “a coalition of organizations and individuals that advocates alongside immigrants.”
Their website declares: “We believe that immigration status is irrelevant to a person’s worth as a human being.”
Culbreath said that Casa Colibri, and what it will do, is “radical generosity” and that she was motivated by love for humanity, like many of the people around her.
Pryor expanded that thought: “Love prevails if good people do something.”