Immigrants in Georgia detention centers lose access to sole local pro bono law clinic

Stewart Detention Center, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in southwest Georgia, is one of the country’s largest, holding about 2,000 people. (David Goldman / AP)

The Southern Immigrant Freedom Initiative, known as SIFI, was the only legal team offering pro bono legal services to people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in both of Georgia’s rural detention centers – Stewart Detention Center in Southwest Georgia and Folkston Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center in Southeast Georgia.

Earlier this month, the initiative’s parent organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center, laid off the entire SIFI staff and many others working in immigration across the country. 

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that without SIFI in these detention centers, providing the services that we are providing, we have no other phone number to give people to call,” said Gracie Willis, one of the attorneys who was laid off.

The detention centers can hold nearly 3,000 people, and immigrants from anywhere in the country can be sent to Georgia. Immigrants are not guaranteed legal representation for their cases and are often navigating reams of paperwork and changing policies on their own.

Analysis from the nonprofit American Immigration Council shows that people in detention with lawyers are twice as likely to get the relief they seek, whether it is asylum, self-deportation or other outcomes.

Georgia has one of the lowest rates of asylum approvals for people who are detained.

“Stewart is one of the most deadly detention centers in the United States, and it’s out in the middle of nowhere,” said Threthrea Redding, another attorney who was laid off. “What a perfect place to put a facility where no one could go out there and have access to them.”  

The SPLC said it still intends to help immigrants, but CEO Margaret Huang said in a way that addresses overarching systemic issues in immigration.

“It’s not that we don’t want to help immigrants and other people who are being detained across the country for a whole slew of reasons, but what we’re recognizing is that the individual representation, while obviously very important for those families affected, is too limiting in its scope,” she said.  

She said the scope of the problem has changed since SIFI launched in 2017. 

“At the end of Trump’s tenure, we were seeing about seven to eight thousand people being held in ICE detention every day,” she said. “Today, I looked it up. This week, it was 38,000.”