By Lautaro Grinspan, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
As travelers milled about Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on a recent Thursday afternoon, an unmarked white van came to a stop beside the airport’s domestic terminal, having completed its two-hour trip from a sprawling immigration detention facility in Southwest Georgia. A guard got out of the driver’s seat and opened one of the van’s side doors, releasing a group of about 20 asylum seekers, many of whom had spent roughly two months at the Stewart Detention Center after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The asylum seekers, all women, greeted their newfound freedom with joy, hugging and cheering as they gathered by the airport’s entrance. Some wore street clothes and a backpack. Others were clad in monochromatic prison scrubs, carrying no personal items besides a picture ID from CoreCivic, one of the largest private prison companies in the U.S. — and the operator of the Stewart facility.
The women… have started the legal process of applying for asylum protections while in custody. Under U.S. law, migrants have the right to claim asylum however they enter the country (”It doesn’t matter how you arrived,” reads the website of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). If approved, asylum lets applicants live and work legally in the U.S., and puts them on a path to permanent resident status and citizenship.
“I still can’t believe it,” said Cynthia, who told the AJC she was fleeing political persecution in Venezuela and spent two and a half months in detention. Like the rest of the migrants featured in this story, she asked to be identified by her first name only, to avoid putting her ongoing immigration case in jeopardy.
“Until I’m with my family, I won’t be able to believe it,” she said in Spanish. “Some friends who got out before me told me that they don’t even want to open their eyes in the morning. They are scared it might all be a dream.”
The presence of Cynthia and the other women in the bustling Atlanta airport reflects the long reach of the migration surge at the southern border, which has seen unprecedented numbers of illegal crossings in recent months. While the Biden administration is relying on a Trump-era expulsion policy to rapidly send most border crossers back to Mexico and keep official ports of entry closed, some asylum seekers crossed into the U.S. and have been funneled into the immigration detention system.
On that Thursday, welcoming the group of migrants who made it to the airport — and a second, similarly sized group that arrived at 9:30 p.m. — was Anton Flores-Maisonet, a longtime immigrant rights advocate and co-founder of Atlanta-based Casa Alterna, a nonprofit and hospitality house. Flores-Maisonet has mobilized a group of volunteers to assist migrants released from Stewart and dropped off at the airport since the spring of 2020, when the incipient pandemic (and a judge’s order) triggered reductions in ICE’s detained population.
Flores-Maisonet said that, in the early days, released migrants numbered in the single digits. But over the summer, drop-offs from Stewart, which take place nearly every weekday, ballooned in size, with dozens of people released at once — a strain on Casa Alterna’s volunteers and resources. In July, up to 79 migrants were released in one night, according to Flores-Maisonet.
“My team is so overwhelmed,” he said.
Flores-Maisonet’s operation is part of an “underground railroad” of volunteers, churches and shelters across the country that helps house and facilitate travel for people released but not deported by federal immigration authorities.
Over the summer, immigration advocates elsewhere in the South have rung the alarm, warning that the large-scale and sometimes chaotic nature of recent ICE releases in their areas could cause a crisis.
In July, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Freedom for Immigrants and several other organizations filed a civil rights complaint against ICE “regarding release protocols in Louisiana and Mississippi, causing serious harm to the well-being and safety of those being released.”
The situation in Stewart, with detainees being driven to the Atlanta airport, is “not the crisis we have heard about in other states,” said Amilcar Valencia, executive director of El Refugio, a nonprofit that supports immigrant detainees at Stewart Detention Center.
When asked about the release process at Stewart, which holds the second largest number of ICE detainees in the country, a spokesman for CoreCivic deferred to ICE for comment. ICE has not responded to questions from the AJC.
Casa Alterna’s work has two facets. For released migrants with same or next-day travel plans to join family members living in the U.S., volunteers help them navigate the airport and reach their plane, bus or a taxi. Those who need more time to work out travel plans or housing arrangements are offered free accommodation at the nonprofit’s hospitality house, located inside a Quaker church in Decatur. All are given food and water, and hygiene kits when in stock.
Since March 2020, Casa Alterna has assisted over 2,000 migrants at the Atlanta airport and hosted nearly 300 overnight guests (the average stay is three nights). Around 40 volunteers, many of whom have immigrant backgrounds, split the work, from guiding people at the airport to keeping the hospitality house clean and well-stocked.
Although Flores-Maisonet says his operation is “not here to rescue anyone” and migrants are “resilient,” he understands there are significant, logistical hurdles to clear in the transition from immigrant detention to life in the U.S. Most migrants have no English-language skills, very limited funds, and little experience navigating an international airport. Some don’t know what Atlanta or Georgia are and ask Flores-Maisonet to show them where they’re located on a map.
“My job here is not to fix and I can’t fix, but at least I can make sure that you don’t feel alone in a system that none of us can change, seemingly, in this moment,” Flores-Maisonet said. “Knowing you’re not alone is the best gift that I can give.”
Volunteers know when drop-offs are happening, and how many migrants to expect, because they are in contact with detention center staff.
On that recent Thursday, Flores-Maisonet led the group of former detainees into a room Casa Alterna uses located pre-security on the second floor of the domestic terminal. There, volunteers asked migrants to fill out a form with their flight information. Almost all had flights scheduled for later that night, paid for by relatives who had been informed ahead of time of their loved ones’ release date. Focusing first on those with earlier departure times, volunteers printed migrants’ boarding passes, then walked folks past security and to their boarding gate. Because the second group of migrants was dropped off from Stewart at 9:30 p.m., later than originally planned, many had already missed their flights, prompting volunteers to reach out to family members to get them to book new ones, often at significant cost — a frustratingly common occurrence, according to Flores-Maisonet.
That day, the migrants who were released were mostly from Venezuela and Central America. There were also people from Cuba, Brazil, and a woman from China (Casa Alterna volunteers used Google Translate to communicate with her). After weeks on the road to the southern border and months in detention, migrants were setting their sights on joining their sponsors — people who accept financial responsibility for asylum seekers during the application process — in places like Los Angeles, Tampa, Orlando, Salt Lake City, Newark or Houston. At least a couple of women planned on staying in the Atlanta metro area.
Among the bustle of the second-story airport room was Wendy, a Cuban national. She was in detention when many of her countrymen and women poured into the streets in July, staging the biggest protests in decades against Cuba’s Communist regime. Although she was moved when she heard of the marches and rallies, she shared that, in her mind, authorities’ draconian crackdown against activists validated her decision to leave.
“Cubans have to put up with so much, so many threats, so much mistreatment, so much persecution,” said Wendy, who plans on “hunkering down” and studying English when she joins her family in Florida.
“I’m so grateful to the U.S. for giving me an opportunity to make it here,” she added. “We’re all grateful.”
Flores-Maisonet said that people like Wendy, asylum seekers who came in contact with immigration authorities at the border, account for nearly all of the recent releases from Stewart. That’s likely because new arrivals represent a growing share of all immigrant detainees, a product of the surge at the border and the Biden administration’s decision to narrow the scope of internal immigration enforcement, which involves ICE targeting migrants already living in U.S. cities and towns.
As of last month, over 80% of detainees had been apprehended by Border Patrol officials, and less than 20% by ICE agents, official ICE figures show. Last July, under President Donald Trump, 40% of migrants in detention were arrested by the Border Patrol, and 60% by ICE.
Cynthia, Wendy and other asylum seekers who spoke with the AJC at the airport said they had passed their credible fear interviews while in detention, an early screening step in the asylum application process, and were released on parole. Once they reunite with their sponsors, they will receive a hearing date in immigration court.
Also among the groups of asylum seekers at the airport was Luz, who said she fled Venezuela because a member of the security forces killed her brother, and was threatening her, too. She explained she was happy to be released, and close to joining her husband and daughter who had already made it to Orlando. But she found herself on the verge of tears. Her mother, who was to join them, had died of COVID-19 the day before.
“My mom died yesterday. She was back in Venezuela and got sick with COVID. She died in a week,” she said. “She had told me that she couldn’t wait for the three of us to be together again in Orlando, and for me to send her a photo of us three.”
‘This work is heavy’
Yehimi Cambrón is an Atlanta-based artist born in Michoacán, Mexico, and a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, under which she and thousands of other immigrants brought to the U.S. as children are shielded from deportation. She is perhaps best known for her murals: colorful, public work that embeds immigrant faces and stories into the Atlanta streetscape.
On that recent Thursday, Cambrón was at the airport, not far from one of her creations, where she stayed until midnight printing boarding passes and helping migrants get where they needed to go.
“Especially if you are someone who is undocumented or has undocumented family members, doing this work is heavy. It’s heavy because you are really witnessing the violence of the immigration system,” said Cambrón. “Even though immigration detention and ICE are things I’ve always been scared of, I’ve never experienced detention in my own skin. So I started volunteering (with Casa Alterna) to educate myself and figure out what it is that I could do with my artwork.”
With thousands of followers on Instagram, Cambrón has used her social media platform to recruit more volunteers and raise money for supplies for migrants. It’s an engagement that feels personal, Cambrón explained.
“Like, how do you not see your parents in them, you know? Or your siblings.”
Making his way to security with the last group of asylum seekers accompanied by Casa Alterna volunteers was Medardo, from Nicaragua. The 25-year-old said his nearly three months in detention were “psychologically traumatizing.”
“You don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re just praying to God to help you, to consider your dreams.”
Medardo was about to complete his last year in university and become an agricultural engineer when his opposition to President Daniel Ortega put him in danger. He hopes to one day complete his training in the U.S.
“I’ve always said, if I’m able to live in this country, what I am going to do before anything is respect this country’s laws and be an example for the other young people coming through. That’s my objective: to move forward, to give my life some sense.”
Spending the night
Because of the larger groups of detainees arriving at the Atlanta airport, Casa Alterna is unable to provide housing to everyone. On that recent Thursday, those who had flights scheduled for the following morning were instructed to wait inside the airport. Only two women with later flights spent the night at Casa Alterna’s hospitality house, having been driven there by Flores-Maisonet and arriving near midnight.
The facilities include beds and sleeping cots for up to 14 people, a bathroom, and a kitchen, where Flores-Maisonet had already laid out food for the following morning’s breakfast.
“That’s called a bagel,” he told the women. “Have you heard of it?”
Before going to bed, the women were offered toiletries, clothes and backpacks. They also took part in a Casa Alterna tradition: placing a pin on a map to show where they are from (one of them was from Brazil, the other from Nicaragua). Flores-Maisonet says most guests as of late have been from Haiti. The island was no longer visible on the map under a flurry of colorful pins.
Looking forward, Flores-Maisonet would like to expand the hospitality operation to house not just recent detainees, but also other people in the “detention to deportation pipeline,” including immigrants who must come to Atlanta to report to the city’s immigration court system.
“I have all these ideas of all these different ways I could see this grow,” he said.