Families fight to stay connected as coronavirus forces policy changes at detention facilities

Migrant Centers

LUMPKIN, Ga. (WRBL) — The Stewart Detention Center and other Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities across the United States have changed their policies concerning visitation amid the coronavirus crisis.

The facility in Lumpkin, Ga., announced on Wednesday that it will no longer allow visitation from families to prevent the spread of the virus. Immigration lawyers are the only ones allowed in the visitation area and during bond hearings.

One woman said she’s been unable to see her husband, who’s been locked inside the center since the second week of January. After waiting for more than two months, he was granted a bond hearing. 

“My husband needs support and because of the virus I wasn’t allowed in the court,” she said. She asked that she remain anonymous to protect her husband’s migratory status.

She said she’s driven back and forth from her Florida home every weekend to see her husband for one hour. It was all taken away when the pandemic worsened. 

“I had been planning on coming and to be present as his only family member,” she said. 

She explained that all she wanted to do was show her husband that someone was there for him, but on Friday morning, he walked into an empty courtroom.

Not only was his wife denied visitation due to the coronavirus, but she’s also still fighting to find a way to pay his $8,000 bond. She said the travel and stays to and from Florida to visit him is costly.

“The bond is a ridiculous amount of money and I as well as other Americans are struggling. And now with the COVID 19, we don’t know how that will reflect on our situation,” she said.

El Refugio Ministry, a hospitality house that hosts the families of detainees just three miles away from the detention center, said they’ve had to close due to the coronavirus. 

Michelle Fierro, the post-release coordinator for El Refugio Ministry, said they’ve had to find other accommodations for the families, including the woman from Florida, since they could no longer stay at the ministry’s home in Lumpkin.

Fierro found a place for her to stay in Columbus when they realized her husband’s bond paperwork processing would be pushed into next week. 

Immigration attorney Marty Rosenbluth has access to be inside the detention center. He said that while all of the units seem to have soap, only some units have hand sanitizer.

“The question is if they’re releasing people, are they sure that the coronavirus isn’t going to spread from here. I mean, they’re not testing people coming in and they’re not testing people going out,” Rosenbluth said. 

Rosenbluth said despite the virus and new visitation protocols, all immigration court hearings are still being held. 

“Detainees are being brought into the court and their families just aren’t there to support them,” he explained. He also said the facility didn’t widely publicize the new rules causing families to drive down and not be able to get in. 

“They drive six hours, eight hours or more,” he said. 

When asked how he maintains the morale of his clients, Rosenbluth said it varies. 

“I think people are just beginning to understand what’s going on. It really seems haphazard and helter-skelter. It really seems to vary a lot which unit you’re in what precautions are being taken, he said.

Rosenbluth described one visit with a detainee who told him that the center has told some detainees what’s going on and other detainees have no clue. 

Rosenbluth noted that immigration attorneys are allowed into visitation areas and bond hearings, while guards are allowed to come and go. 

“It makes no sense. I don’t really see any rationale,” Rosenbluth said. 

He said when family members visit, they’re behind 2 inches of plexiglass and there’s no opening. When he visits his clients, there’s a gap between them where they can pass documents. 

“To block the families to avoid the spread of disease when there’s two inches of plexiglass there, it just doesn’t make no sense. It seems more punitive,” he said.

The policies in effect at Stewart Detention Center are the same at every other facility.

WRBL News 3 reached out to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency about the changes in policy, but did not receive a response at time of publication.

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