By Tia Lynn Ivey
A mother was hurrying to Walmart wearing sweats to pick up medicine for her sick son when flashing red and blue lights suddenly lit up her rear view window. What was supposed to be a five minute trip to the store turned into a five-month nightmare locked away from her husband and children in a migrant detention facility in Irwin, Georgia. According to Cherith Johnson, a volunteer for Casa Colibri, a hospitality house facilitating visits to detained migrants in Irwin, this young mother was initially arrested over benign mistake—her American-born husband forgetting to put the new registration sticker on the car. Even though she has been in the country since early childhood, attended American schools, married an American, bore American children, and committed no crimes, she was turned over to ICE and sent to an overcrowded detention center in Irwin, said Johnson.
“When she finally bonded out, I saw this woman reunited with her children still wearing the sweats she was arrested in,” said Johnson. “It was so significant to me hearing her story in her own words…This little woman in front of me who committed no crime being treated like the harshest of criminals in our system.”
This was just one of many stories shared at the Lights for Liberty Vigil in Madison’s Town Park last Saturday, where nearly 100 people came together to light candles, sing songs, offer prayers, make donations and listen to firsthand accounts from migrants and refugees currently detained in the Irwin facility. Over 780 Lights for Liberty vigils took place on Saturday across the country, drawing thousands of people protesting the treatment of migrants and refugees. The movement was sparked after multiple major news outlets revealed disturbing images and inside testimonies of unsanitary, overcrowded and abusive migrant detention facilities, for both adults and children. Major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, NBC, ABC, and CBS have all published detailed accounts of family separation policies that have led to young children being taken from their families after crossing the border and held in overcrowded facilities lacking medicine, beds, and basic hygienic supplies. Reports are also claiming incidents of sexual and physical abuse toward detained migrants.
“We are part of something really large here tonight,” said Jeanne Dufort, a member of the Morgan County Democrats and one of the organizers of the event. “We are gathered here tonight to affirm something really simple: people should be treated humanely and respectfully particularly when they are being held by our government. We have a moral and a legal obligation to provide safe and sanitary conditions…We call upon our government treat people humanely and to keep families together.”
According to Dufort, Georgia is in the top five states with the highest number of detained migrants. She also noted that the Irwin facility has a capacity of 540, but the latest numbers reveal the average detainee population is 840.
Dutton Morehouse, chairman of the Morgan County Democrats encouraged the crowd to look for opportunities to take care of others.
“Truly being a neighbor starts at home and the next time we see someone in need we will not pass them,” said Moorehouse.
During the vigil speakers took turns reading poems, prayers, and letters from detained migrants from Irwin’s detention center. The crowd listened to a letter from one mother who was detained while her premature son born at just over two pounds was still in the hospital.
“I fear for my life and my health,” she wrote. “They do not care about us as people, they treat us as if we were not human. To them we are worse than animals. The guards treat us roughly only because we are Hispanics, they discriminate against us.”
This woman claims sick people are refused medical care, the food has worms in it, and the guards taunt and threaten detainees.
Another letter was read from a mother with three daughters who said she was brought to America at just six-years-old when she made the arduous trek across the Rio Grande before eventually arriving in North Carolina. She’s been detained for last three months.
“It’s been three long months away from my daughters. It’s been three long months incarcerated for a crime I had no part in…I was young and innocent and all we wanted was a better life away from the violence,” she wrote. “We are all the same, just a different nationality. We bleed, cry, smile, and hurt the same. We have no fault in being an immigrant. We did not choose this life, this life chose us. Please, I beg of you. Stop deportation. Stop separating mothers and fathers from their families. We matter and we deserve to be forgiven.”
Another letter was from a mother who came to America with her young daughter in May of 2018 to flee from gangs threatening them. They were separated from each other in Arizona. The mother was moved around until she finally was transferred the Irwin detention facility.
“The reason I left my country is because I was threatened that they would take my daughter away if I did not pay them,” she wrote. “They would say some ugly things and wanted to rape me.”
She claims detention cards denied her any phone calls and refused her medicine for an ear infection for 15 days.
“We are not treated well here,” she wrote. “I just want to go out of here. I want to see my daughter. I am worried and sad. She is just a six-year-old and does not understand why we were separated.. I miss her a lot and I cry for her.”
Local Madison leaders participated in Saturday’s Lights for Liberty Vigil. Madison City Councilwoman and Pastor of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church Carrie Peters Reid and her husband, Officer Derrick Reid read a prayer together.
“Source of Justice, who is known by many names, open our eyes that we may see the immigrant and undocumented, not as threats, but as brothers and sisters whose dignity is tied to our own dignity and whose lack of freedom calls into question our own freedom. The farm worker, the hotel maid, the line cook, the childcare provider, the healthcare worker and so many others…Today we stand in solidarity with all those across this nation living in sanctuary as a result of unjust and inhumane policies,” recited the Reids.
Madison Councilwoman Chris Hodges read the poem written by Emma Lazarus that is carved on the Statue of Liberty.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” recited Hodges.
Elizabeth Adkins read The Believer Poem by Amanda Gormon at the vigil. “In the declaration’s pages, we write a new order for the ages,
Where out of many, we are one,
Bright as a sun, and bold as an eagle,
A nation of all people, by all people,
For all people,” she recited.
Cherith Johnson, who was the featured speaker, urged the crowd to donate time, money and resources to Casa Colibri to further the work of caring for detained migrants at the Irwin facility.
According to the website, Casa Colibrí, which means “Hummingbird House,” is a hospitality house near Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga. “We provide a comfortable resting place, meals, lodging, and friendship every weekend for families and friends of persons detained at Irwin, free of charge.”
Casa Colibrí is a program of the South Georgia Immigrant Support Network. To support Casa Colibrí financially, send a check made out to Koinonia Farm (our nonprofit fiscal sponsor) to South Georgia Immigrant Support Network, P.O. Box 1966, Tifton, GA 31793.
For more information, call 1-877-545-2473 or email firstname.lastname@example.org