Stewart Detention Center–Why Is It A Deportation Machine?

Charles Kuck Blog, Uncategorized

A recent headline loudly proclaimed (incorrectly) that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was now “losing” almost 50% of the cases brought before an immigration judge in all US Immigration Courts.  The headline is deceptive, because it is simply not true.  ICE does not lose almost 50% of its cases.  There is no doubt that a much larger percentage of cases are “administratively closed” by Immigration Courts on a motion by ICE than in past years, but assuredly ICE is not “losing” these cases. Perhaps they are being more generous in their application of discretion, but losing them, no.

That said, one place where this is NOT happening is at the Stewart Detention Center (SDC), in Lumpkin, Georgia.  Located 3 hours south of Atlanta (and one hour south of Colombus), in what can best be described as the middle of nowhere (go ahead click the link and see that I am right). According to the statistics released by TRAC, ICE attorneys have a success rate of  95.1% in front of SDC’s three immigration judges.  Even worse, only 300 of the 1,676 cases processing through deportation at SDC were criminal related (only 17%)! ALL the rest were simply immigration violations.  And, of these “immigration violation” cases, ICE wins 98% of them, when nationally ICE is at around 50%.  Wait, how is that possible?  Perhaps all the ICE attorneys at SDC are so much smarter and better than their colleagues in other jurisdictions?  Perhaps ICE only sends “guilty” immigrants to SDC, making their deportation a foregone conclusion? Or, perhaps there are  more troubling answers. Perhaps a lack of immigration attorneys, together with Immigration Judges not regularly granting a reasonable bond to the immigrants (and thus keeping immigrants detained in what can only be described as a hell hole, so far from their families and legal counsel that they literally give up hope and ask for an order of deportation) has a deleterious and chilling effect on the immigrant desire to stay and fight the charges.

With all due respect to the ICE attorneys at SDC, they have the same skill set and education as their colleagues in Atlanta and other parts of the US.  And, experience and evidence shows that the cases at Stewart are no worse or better than those in other “detention centers” in other parts of the US, or  those ICE chooses not to detain.  So, if it is not the ICE attorneys, and it is not the immigrants, what other variables are there?  Simply put–the lack of immigration attorneys, and the bonds, or lack there of, granted by immigration judges.   But, is there any evidence of these final reasons for SDC’s outlying percentage of removal orders?  The answer to that question lies both in our experience with hundreds of cases at SDC and in hard numerical evidence available at the Executive Office for Immigration Review (the office responsible for tracking the work of immigration judges).  
Countless are the cases where an individual is eligible for a bond who is only charged with an immigration violation, and if given that bond the individual would be eligible for relief from deportation (e.g., marriage to a long standing US Citizen girlfriend, cancellation of removal, etc.).  Recently, an immigration judge in SDC denied bond in this type of situation.  But, rather than wait six months and appeal the judge’s decision, which appeal would most assuredly be successful, the immigrant elected to take a deportation order and leave; deciding to continue his fight to return from outside the US, far from his family and children.  These same Immigration Judges routinely deny bond to an immigrant who has one or two DUI arrests (not a criminal ground of removability), when a bond with conditions, such as monitoring by ICE, is a viable alternative to detention, like in state court proceedings.

Failure of immigration judges to grant reasonable bonds, when state and federal court judges grant reasonable bonds every day in similar cases, coupled with a lack of access to counsel, suggests a severe lack of due process available to the immigrant at SDC.  Because once an immigrant is detained in SDC the ability of the immigrant to secure competent legal counsel is severely limited.  Phone calls are outrageously expensive, when available.  It is virtually impossible to mount a defense to removal when only you know where documents are kept or stored at your apartment, that will allow you to seek the relief offered you under federal immigration law. Many who have not been through this process do not appreciate the importance of being released to family and friends to fight the immigration charges near where their attorneys practice, as there is effectively no immigration attorneys nearer than an hour from SDC.

Yet, many of these same judges routinely grant a form of relief euphemistically called “Voluntary Departure Under Safeguards.”  There is no statutory basis for this form of relief.  The immigration statutes allow for “Voluntary Departure,” basically time for a foreign national to wrap up their affairs in the US, sell property and then leave voluntarily, without an order of removal.  The invented “voluntary departure under safeguards” relief allows detained individuals to buy their own ticket and then NOT be released from custody and be escorted from the United States, to avoid having a deportation order.  But that order is irrelevant since a deportation order carries with  it a 10 year bar to return, and departure under voluntary departure also means a 10 year bar to return for those who have been in the US illegally for longer than a year.  A difference without a meaningful distinction.  

Another concern is that even those with deportation orders can stay in SDC for weeks after the order is given.  Who profits from that?   SDC makes a fortune for the Correction Corporation of America (CCA), as part of the congressional mandate to fill 34,000 beds a night, year round, with immigration detainees.  ICE is under direct orders to keep this facility full, even of immigrants with possible relief from removal, or those with removal orders.  By keeping immigrant detainees in remote locations, in deplorable conditions that are outside their norm for people unaccustomed to “prison life,” far from family and counsel, there is one, inevitable result–a loss of hope, and a very high rate of removal compared to non-detained immigrants.
A colleague once said that SDC is where “due process goes to die.”  But, since there appears to be so little due process to start with, I am afraid he is wrong.  Due Process never has existed at SDC, and never will until lawyers are provided for detained immigrants, bonds become a matter of routine, rather than a matter of exception, and SDC is closed down, leaving ICE sufficient space to detain those who are a danger to society, and freeing up an immigration court system to get down to the task of dispensing justice.  

About the Author

Charles Kuck

Managing Partner