“I don’t believe you.”

That’s what the four-nearly-five year old I spent Thursday evening with kept telling her siblings when they told her her dad was coming. Starting at about 7:30 PM, I hung out in the parking lot of Stewart with R* and her three children, L* (age 15), S (age 12), and A* (age 4). We were waiting for the last member of their family, AJ*, to be released. ICE never tells the families exactly what time their person will be released, so, as with all things at the Stewart Detention Center, there’s a lot of hurry up and wait. The family had ridden down with a woman from Columbus who simply volunteers to drive detainees, and often hosts them in her home, as a one-woman soldier for the cause. However, she can no longer drive at night, so as the sun went down, I agreed to drive the family.

The five of us stood in the parking lot, enjoying an uncharacteristically cool breeze and talking about plans for the future, mostly. R* had finally made the decision to move her family from North Carolina to Columbus, Georgia, in order to be closer to her husband. She kept getting calls for her to come to Stewart, and the trip was too long to make at the drop of a hat from North Carolina, so she moved the family to Georgia in the middle of August. However, she had not planned to be in Georgia long term, and the kids weren’t enrolled in school. We talked about their plans to move to her uncle’s date farm in California. I looked at L*’s Instagram photos of sunsets she liked.  I asked A*about her stuffed dog (named Kylo).

Finally, at about 8:30PM, a group of men could be seen coming out of the side gate. Even at quite a distance, all three kids recognized their dad. A* looked up at us all in disbelief, and was met with a chorus of “we told you” from her siblings. We approached the gate slowly, with a handful of other families and friends. The group of men came out from the gate, but stuck closely to the CoreCivic guard who was escorting them, unsure whether they were truly free to leave or not. The guard checked some things on her clipboard, and finally gave the all clear. AJ* walked quickly towards his children, R* told A* it was okay to run to him, and I thought “well, here’s the part where I cry in front of this whole family.” AJ* scooped his youngest daughter up in his arms, stuffed toy dog and all, as the big kids made a cooler approach. Then the whole family converged in one big, long-anticipated group hug.

The family had brought AJ* a backpack full of new clothes, and the kids had insisted that he would be dying to eat dinner at Del Taco. However, when I asked if he’d like to stop by our office and change, or if he’d like to stop for dinner, he quietly declined, saying he’d rather just go home. So, I drove this newly reunited family back to the little apartment they rent in the back of someone’s house on the outskirts of Columbus, listening to L* tell her dad about the new Twenty-One Pilots album, listening to S* ask his dad about whether he had ever ridden in a taxi cab, and stealing glances in the rearview mirror at A* snuggled on her dad’s lap.

Unsurprisingly, when we arrived at the house, AJ* offered to pay me for my gas, for my time. I tried to decline as politely as I could while struggling (and failing) to come up with a way to explain that I was just so happy to be able to help. It feels so corny to say that just seeing his family back together was a reward in and of itself, but I really mean it. I had dinner this evening with the other resident immigration attorney here in Lumpkin (don’t worry, Marty, you’ll get an entire Lumpkin Letter all your own) and we talked about how so much of this job is just about physically being with people. We made a conscious choice to be in Lumpkin so that we can be there for people in a real, tangible way; sit next to them during hearings, talk face-to-face (albeit through glass), give someone a ride. It costs me virtually nothing to drive these people to Columbus, but it makes a world of difference to the mother of three who cannot drive, and a family whose sole breadwinner has been incarcerated. I’m grateful to this family for letting me be a part of their lives and this victory for even just a 45-minute car ride.

See, A*? We told you he was coming.

 

*Names redacted to protect their privacy.

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