A refuge for families of ICE detainees

El Refugio is a hospitality house in rural Georgia, offering a place to stay for those visiting family and friends detained by ICE at Stewart Detention Center.

Posted: Aug 24, 2018 1:51 PM
Updated: Aug 24, 2018 2:00 PM

Bins stuffed with toys sit on the living room shelves.

There's hummus and fresh-baked lasagna in the fridge.

A handwritten sign taped to a bedroom door proclaims "Bienvenido a su casa." Welcome to your home.

There are no hotels in Lumpkin, Georgia. There isn't even a grocery store.

But here, at this small yellow house on Main Street, families in crisis can find the comforts of home.

It's known as "El Refugio," Spanish for "The Refuge," and it's much more than a house.

It's a rare window into ways the government's immigration crackdown is reshaping daily life in America.

Framed drawings by immigrant detainees hang in the hallway.

Duffel bags packed with clothes wait for men about to be deported.

Different people live in this volunteer-run shelter every weekend, going through similar motions even as their worlds are spinning.

There's Nancy, panicking about mounting costs she can't afford.

There's Silvia, struggling to reach the lawyer who's supposed to be fighting for her son's freedom.

And there's Dayanna, who doesn't know what to tell her toddler.

Weeks ago, these women didn't have much in common. But now their greatest fears bind them together. The men they love live less than a mile away, behind bars at the Stewart Detention Center, the largest immigrant holding facility in the Southeast.

And they're terrified of what could happen next.

Dreading a decision

It's been a month since Nancy Cortez's cell phone rang with sounds she never wanted to hear.

Her husband called the moment officers pulled him over. Nancy's heart sank as she listened to police asking him to step out of the car.

Even with all the news about immigration arrests, she never expected it would affect her family. Nancy is a US citizen. Jose Luis Sanchez Maldonado isn't. He crossed into the United States illegally more than a decade ago, but he tried to stay out of trouble.

His arrest on charges of speeding and driving without a license outside Atlanta landed him in ICE custody. And it sent Nancy's life spinning. This week, she had to move out of their apartment. She couldn't afford the rent; all the money she can spare pays for the car she needs to get to her job as a medical assistant.

Now, she's living with family and frantically searching for answers as her mind fills with a steady stream of questions. She's been obsessively Googling details about Stewart and wishes she could unsee some of the things she's found out about the massive, all-male detention center.

Only one link she followed gave her hope: The story of Pedro Guzman, a Guatemalan immigrant whose family stayed at El Refugio while they fought his case -- and won.

The first time Nancy stayed at El Refugio, she slept in a room named for Guzman's family.

It made her both hopeful and sad. Guzman was stuck inside Stewart for nearly a year. She can't imagine Jose Luis trapped behind bars that long.

Today, she'll learn whether he could be.

If the judge doesn't grant bond, Nancy would rather see Jose Luis sign deportation papers and go back to Mexico.

She would follow, but what jobs could they get there? How would they survive?

Nancy hopes she won't have to find out.

She grips her sister Stephanie's hand as they walk toward the gates of the detention center, past a flattened frog in the parking lot.

A guard says they're too early.

So, Nancy, 24, and Stephanie, who's 11, sit outside on a concrete bench, staring at the doors to the detention complex.

A pair of women in scrubs walk out laughing.

"They have nurses?" Stephanie asks. "Maybe you could get a job here."

Nancy shakes her head. This is not a place she wants to work.

Stephanie tries to smile at the uniformed people walking in. She quickly notices that most of them don't smile back.

Nancy looks worried. She leans her head on her sister's shoulder.

"If they do grant him bond," Nancy says, "how much will it be?"

Whatever it is, she's afraid she can't afford it.

***

Judge Saundra Arrington seems aggravated the moment Jose Luis' hearing starts.

She slams his attorney for filing a massive stack of documents just minutes ago, then asks for the government's recommendation. A prosecutor representing the Department of Homeland Security says Jose Luis shouldn't get bond. He could be a danger, he says, noting that Jose Luis was convicted of petty theft once. He was also charged with battery at the time, though that charge was later dropped.

Nancy's heart sinks. Things are not looking good. She squeezes her sister's hand.

Jose Luis' lawyer tells the judge his client has lived in the United States for more than 10 years.

Arrington is unimpressed; the file doesn't show anything about him paying taxes.

"What does he do for a living?" Arrington asks.

Construction, the lawyer says.

"Do people know when he's in their homes that he is in the country illegally?"

"Let me ask him," the lawyer replies. He turns to Jose Luis and asks the question in Spanish.

"They don't discuss it," the lawyer tells the court.

The judge furrows her brow.

"Well, if I had someone doing work in my home," she says, "I'd want to know."

To Nancy, the judge's words sting. She knows her husband is a hard worker. She doesn't understand why the judge is talking about him like he's a hardened criminal.

"I don't have the information I'm used to having," the judge says.

Nancy feels the tears welling up in her eyes. She knows what's coming next. How will they live in Mexico?

"I'm setting the bond at $15,000," the judge says.

A wave of relief washes over Nancy. It takes her a minute just to absorb the news. But she's stunned by the steep amount. She can barely afford gas money, let alone that kind of cash.

Outside, she makes frantic calls, trying to find a way to pay.

Lost in translation

The sky was black when Silvia Alvarez arrived late last night in Lumpkin.

Driving into the lonely town and slipping into a safe house felt like arriving in a new country all over again. Like she did when she came to the United States from El Salvador in 2006. Like her son did when he came to the United States in 2011.

A group of immigrant rights activists brought Silvia to El Refugio. They're trying to help her navigate the immigration court system. But Silvia has no idea what's about to happen. She hasn't been able to reach her son's attorney.

All she knows is that Carlos Antonio, 25, has a court date today.

He's been at Stewart for more than four months after being arrested on a DUI charge in North Carolina. This is the first time Silvia has been able to visit. She lives more than eight hours away.

As she walks into the courtroom, canned music plays over the speakers. Judge Dan Trimble lets out an exasperated sigh.

He's trying to track down an attorney on another case who was supposed to appear by phone but didn't answer when the court called.

The detainee in front of him tries to interject.

"You wanted to tell me something?" Trimble asks.

"I talked with my family," the man says through a court interpreter. "We already decided that I was going to return to my country. ... I accept my deportation."

Silvia tugs at her fingertips and looks at the floor, trying to push back the tears she fears will come.

Carlos Antonio is sitting across the room, his face trained on the front of the courtroom.

She doesn't want him to see her crying.

The judge calls out her son's name, then calls Carlos Antonio's attorney by phone.

The attorney tells the judge that Carlos Antonio was a victim of assault inside the North Carolina jail where he was held for months. He's waiting for certification so he can apply for a special visa the government grants to victims of crimes who help authorities prosecute the perpetrators.

"We need more time," the attorney says.

The judge says he won't postpone the hearing again.

Silvia strains to hear but doesn't understand.

The interpreter sits at the front of the courtroom. Judges, attorneys and everyone in the courtroom can hear his English translations. But he only provides Spanish translations for detainees, his words quietly piped in through a headset they wear.

"I'm going to order that the respondent be removed from the United States to El Salvador," the judge says, noting he'd had months to come up with the necessary paperwork and still hadn't delivered. Trimble says Carlos Antonio has a few weeks to decide whether he wants to appeal.

"I wish you the best of luck," he says, "and we are adjourned."

Silvia's face is blank.

She walks out of the courtroom, wondering what she just witnessed.

"Que pasó?" she asks.

Pablo Friedmann, an activist with immigrant rights group Alerta Migratoria NC who came to court with Silvia, takes out his legal pad and pulls her aside.

"What did you understand about what happened?" he asks in Spanish.

She looks embarrassed. She didn't understand much.

"Just that we are still trying to get the U visa," she says.

"That's right," Pablo tells her. But there was more.

The judge said he couldn't keep postponing the case while the attorney searched for documents.

"He issued a deportation order to send your son back to El Salvador."

As Pablo speaks, Silvia's lip starts to tremble. Her face turns red.

She tried to keep it together in court.

Now the tears flow.

Pablo tries to comfort her.

"The attorney reserved the right to appeal. It's up to you to decide what to do next," he says. "Do you want her to handle the appeal?"

"No," Silvia quickly blurts out. She is not sure of many things right now. But she is sure of this.

She wants to keep fighting the case, but with a new lawyer -- hopefully one she can trust.

That's the good thing, Pablo tells her: This isn't the end. You can keep fighting.

Silvia nods, wipes her eyes, and heads back through the detention center's doors. She'll spend hours in a waiting room for a chance to see her son one more time.

Struggling to tell a toddler 'why'

The day she got married, Dayanna wasn't allowed to bring a bouquet.

Guards at the Stewart Detention Center stopped her from carrying it past the entrance.

Her wedding was held in an attorney visitation room. It lasted less than 10 minutes.

The groom stood on one side of the glass. The bride stood on the other.

Their fingers were allowed to touch, but just for a moment. They swapped rings through the narrow slot where lawyers pass documents to their clients.

It wasn't the ceremony she'd imagined. But Dayanna was thrilled she'd finally found a way to make the relationship with the man she loves official. And she hoped it would help him.

But she knows any misstep could make it all crumble. She agreed to let CNN follow her story but asked that only first names be used out of fear that speaking out might hurt her husband's case.

It's been more than a year since Dayanna and Willy moved in together. He won her heart by treating her like royalty -- and by treating her son like his own. It's been months since police stopped him near their home in South Carolina for having a broken brake light, then handed him over to immigration authorities. It's been a week since they got married behind bars at Stewart. And it's been hours since Dayanna heard an immigration judge there finally say the words she'd been praying for.

Willy is eligible for bond.

This afternoon, Dayanna is ready to pay it.

She rushes through a metal detector and picks up her black stiletto heels from the conveyer belt at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Atlanta. After the judge's ruling this morning, she drove as fast as she could to get here. But Stewart is more than two hours away. What if she's already too late?

She holds her 3-year-old's hand as he toddles behind her. Together, they head down the hallway at an increasingly fast clip.

Elijah is carrying red, blue and yellow crayons and a Spiderman comic book. Dayanna is carrying a check for $7,500.

She hopes she can head back to Stewart quickly. But it doesn't look good.

A sign taped on the wall beside the receptionist's window in the ICE waiting room says: "WAIT 3-5 HOURS OR MORE."

If officials don't process the paperwork in time, Dayanna worries Willy will have to spend another night in detention. But she smiles as she slides a clipboard under the glass and takes a seat at the back of the waiting room.

Best not to rock the boat. They're so close now.

Dayanna is the only one in the packed room who's smiling.

This isn't just where friends and family come to post bond for loved ones in detention. It's also where immigrants wait to check in with ICE. Many walk in afraid they won't walk out.

A skinny man wearing dark jeans and a navy T-shirt clutches a black backpack in his arms, his eyes wide.

A blonde woman buries her head in her hands and cries.

Occasionally, muscular men in ballcaps pop into the waiting room, call someone's name, and escort that person through the wooden door at the back of the room.

Two TVs mounted on the wall show a days-old image on MSNBC. The anchor's face is beside a headline from a blistering New York Post editorial: "Donald Trump Jr. is an idiot." Hour after hour after hour, the image does not change.

No one in the room seems to notice.

The frozen screens are just one more thing stuck in a holding pattern, one more thing Dayanna and the others in the room cannot control.

It takes nearly five hours for an official to hand Dayanna her paperwork. He apologizes and tells her the computer system was down. By the time she gets back to Stewart, he tells her, Willy will be free.

Dayanna rushes to her car, starts the engine and slides her manicured, electric blue nails over the GPS screen, typing out "Stewart Detention Center." She's been there so many times the past few weeks that the roads of rural Georgia have become familiar. But she's not leaving anything to chance.

As her Ford Explorer barrels down the highway, Dayanna glances up at the rear-view mirror.

Elijah is slumped in his car seat. Dayanna is relieved. Finally, he's taking a nap.

Willy's absence has been hard on him.

Elijah saw her crying a few weeks ago. He tugged on her sleeve and asked her, "Mommy, why are you sad?"

Dayanna hasn't known what to say.

Sometimes, she tells Elijah that the man he sees as a father figure is away on a construction project, earning money to buy toys. She's afraid if she told him the truth, her son might blurt something out at day care. And he'd be scared if he knew what Willy is going through.

Elijah is terrified of jails. He thinks monsters live inside.

Dayanna looks at the road, then back at the mirror, running her fingers through her hair. Her face is thinner than it was just a few months ago; she's lost 15 pounds. It's been difficult to eat.

"The gray hairs this has given me," she says, trying to tuck away the ones she spots.

She wants to look perfect when Willy comes out.

This will be the first time they've stood face to face for months, with no barrier between them.

Dayanna, 35, was born in the Dominican Republic and has a green card. She used to look down on undocumented immigrants. She didn't see any problem with deporting them.

Now, she feels differently. She wouldn't want her worst enemy to endure what she's watched Willy go through.

Dayanna drives and drives. Past the rows of tan trucks outside Fort Benning. Beside a rundown building with a handmade sign that reads, "Sexy Exotic." Past an arrow pointing the way to the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site. Past a Dollar General store and a Chevron gas station.

She pulls into the detention center's parking lot just before 8 p.m. and drives slowly toward the front of the building.

The GPS chimes in: "You have arrived at your destination."

"The black hole of Stewart," Dayanna adds.

In the distance, she spots a group in dark blue uniforms walking in a line, heads down. They must be working, she thinks.

There's no sign of Willy.

She stops the car in front of the building. She hopes he'll see her and come out. She's walked through the razor-wire gates more than a dozen times. She doesn't want to go inside again.

Willy emerges from the building wearing blue jeans and a pink polo shirt. At first, Dayanna doesn't recognize him, she'd gotten so used to seeing him in that uniform.

"That's him! Let's go!" she shouts as she plucks Elijah from his car seat.

They head side by side toward the detention center, leaving the car running with the doors open behind them.

"Elijah!" Willy calls out, smiling as the little boy bounds toward the gate.

As the last barrier between Willy and the outside world slides open, he rushes out and kneels on the ground. Elijah throws his arms around him.

Dayanna watches from a few feet away. For months she's been fighting for this moment. Now it almost seems too good to be true.

She kicks off her high heels, puts Willy's grey duffel bag in the trunk and gets back into the driver's seat.

A few minutes down the road, she turns onto a gravel driveway and pulls to a stop. Before they begin the six-hour drive home, Dayanna wants Willy to see El Refugio. For weeks it's been her second home, the one bright spot in this dark time.

Dayanna races around the house, Willy following cautiously, Elijah in his arms.

Dayanna points at a box hanging on the dining room wall. It's stuffed with names of detainees who volunteers visit and write to.

"This is where I left your address the last time," she says. "I wanted people to visit you."

She leads Willy down the hall to a room full of bunk beds.

"This is where we slept."

"Amazing," Willy says.

A knock at the door interrupts the tour. It's Erica, who works nearby at a pro bono law office. Last week, she bought Dayanna a bouquet and stood beside her as a bridesmaid behind locked doors at Stewart.

The two women had become close friends as Dayanna returned to El Refugio week after week. The first time Willy met Erica was on his wedding day.

They saw each other through the visitation glass but didn't have a chance to talk. Today, they hug for the first time.

"Thank you for helping her," Willy says.

Erica starts sobbing. She's thrilled to see Willy free but thinks of all the other men still inside.

She tells Willy she knows how hard it must have been.

He nods.

"There's a thousand people there," he says. "Every minute passes like an hour. And it's so noisy, you can't even sleep."

Dayanna gets a snack for Elijah in the kitchen, then tells Willy it's time to go.

Together, they walk past the bunk beds where so many women have slept. Past the dining room where so many women have eaten. And out the door so many women have walked through.

Dayanna gets back in her car and starts up the engine. She knows their fight isn't over. Willy still faces more court hearings as he tries to avoid deportation.

But for now, her family is heading home.

More from 'Inside America's Hidden Border'

A cell became his cemetery

Two lawyers. One court. And their fight against the odds.

In one of America's poorest places, detaining immigrants is a big business

About this series

CNN reported the stories in this series over the course of more than a year, conducting dozens of interviews and making multiple visits to the privately run, all-male Stewart Detention Center -- one of more than 200 facilities across the United States where immigrants facing deportation are held. The facility has the capacity to house nearly 2,000 detainees. Some have significant criminal histories. Others ended up in the crosshairs of immigration authorities when they were pulled over for traffic offenses. And some are seeking asylum after recently crossing the border.

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