We’re all so busy debating immigration policy that we’ve forgotten something essential.
A few months ago in the early morning, I joined a group from my Atlanta-based church on a two-and-a-half-hour drive down I-85 South to the Stewart Detention Center, one of the largest immigration detention centers in the country. Some of the immigrants detained in the facility had requested visitors, and so our church responded. I tried to imagine—who would be so lonely as to ask a stranger to meet with him? Someone living in a very isolated place. Stewart is located in Lumpkin, Georgia, a rural town near the border of Alabama. Many of the center’s residents have been transferred from other states—some as far away as California—and as a result are cut off from family, legal representation, and support networks.
When our congregation asked about the purpose of our trip to Stewart, we relied on Christ’s invitation in Matthew 25:36: “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Of course, this wasn’t prison exactly. It was immigration detention. Maybe that’s why, when we arrived, I was unprepared for the distinctly prison-like look of the facility.
Shrouded in barbed wire, Stewart was built as a medium-security prison. Its almost 1,800 beds are filled with men who’ve entered the country illegally, overstayed a visa, or served US prison sentences for previous crimes and are now awaiting removal proceedings. Perhaps the most important feature of the detention center is hidden behind the scenes: It’s owned by CCA (Corrections Corporation of America), a for-profit prison corporation that operates numerous detention centers as well as state and federal prisons across the country.
This August, the federal government announced a move to reduce contracts with private prison …