This update is dedicated to the family of Santiago Baten-Oxlaj. Mr. Baten (left) died May 25th of COVID-19 while in ICE custody and detained at Stewart Detention Center.
Since 2007, I have collaborated with many immigrants, allies, and organizations to call and organize for the closure of this 1900-bed deportation camp. During COVID-19, in partnership with Georgia Detention Watch and others, we have insisted federal and state authorities close this densely populated facility as a matter of public safety. The request has fallen on deaf ears.
Furthermore, multiple appeals have been made to the Stewart County Georgia Commission to act in the best interest of their local constituents during this public health crisis. Sadly, while still receiving funds for every day Mr. Baten-Oxlaj was confined in their county, they refused to act – not even a symbolic resolution calling for the facility’s closure during this pandemic.
Today, southwest Georgia where the facility is located remains a COVID-19 hotspot. Additionally, Stewart Detention Center has the highest number of guards who have contracted the coronavirus of any jail, prison, or detention center in Georgia.
Praying with my feet and a mask
Frederick Douglass is attributed as saying that, “Praying for freedom never did me any good ’til I started praying with my feet.”
I’ve done a good bit of praying during the past two months of COVID-19. Always with a mask and always on the periphery of any crowd, it’s felt important to amplify the voices of those most imperiled by the various microbial and societal viruses that have gone pandemic these days.
I’ve joined Black Lives Matter actions on Auburn Avenue, downtown, and at the site where Rashard Brooks was tragically killed by Atlanta police. I’ve even organized a couple of Mennonites for Black Lives vigils in East Atlanta. (For video of the Sweet Auburn march, click here.)
We also continue to accompany immigrants released from detention and dropped off at the Atlanta airport. We’ve assisted over 50 such migrants since the beginning of COVID-19, mostly helping them print their boarding passes, get to their gates, and providing them with a meal and other material goods for their journey. We are so grateful for our on-the-ground team, including Jan, Joan, and Lorena and for the excellent remote team of Paz Amigos, led by the indefatigable Rita.
We do have one man that ICE dumped at the airport. I say “dumped” because the man was unaware he was being released. He had been hospitalized with COVID-19 and because of risk factors, ICE decided to release this man who has never lived in the US and knows no one here at our airport. A volunteer couple has housed this man for a few weeks and later this week I will take him to Jubilee Partners in Comer where he’ll reside until flights resume to his home country.
Hear their cries
“But when you heard their cry you saw that they were in distress; and out of your great love you made all their captors take pity on them.” (Psalm 106:44-46)
A former foster son is currently detained in the Troup County Jail. He has COVID-19. He called me crying, explaining that many in his unit were sick. He felt no one cared for their plight. I felt powerless but I had an idea.
“Call me back and I’ll record everyone’s testimony about what’s happening inside the jail.” So we did just that.
That same day 200 loved ones descended upon the jail in protest. Numbers like that in LaGrange, a town of 30,000, is unprecedented; but love compels even the most unprecedented of acts.
The combination of the families’ actions and our release of the recording of the phone call resulted in the local Public Health office testing everyone in the jail. Nearly one in four of those confined at the jail tested positive for COVID-19, my foster son included.
The jail released almost half of its population and those sick have been quarantined to a separate building.
To hear the cries of my foster son and others, watch the video below. The video has already been viewed almost 5,500 times. Please share it until every jail is no longer a place of unjust suffering.
A Momentous Occasion
It was inspiring to return home to DeKalb County and witness the removal of a Confederate memorial that stood here for 112 years.
In other news…
I have also partnered with organizations and churches like Innovation Law Lab, Mercy Community Church and Presencia, accompanying housing insecure and incarcerated immigrants. I am humbled by the encounters I’ve had under bridges, on back patios, and over Zoom with these stretched but strong individuals and families.
I have been accepted as a student in Columbia Theological Seminary’s Spiritual Direction program. I also received a scholarship for which I am very thankful. Of historic note, Columbia recently announced that effective immediately, Black students attending the seminary will receive full scholarships. That’s good news!
Finally, over the past months we’ve raised over $3,000 for immigrant families and racial justice work. Thank you!