El Refugio Retreat

October 10, 2018

The office is closed today and tomorrow in preparation for Hurricane Michael, which is shaping up to be pretty serious. We’re a ways inland, but people are still battening down the hatches a bit. As a girl from Colorado, I’ve been through a surprising number of hurricanes! (Looking at you, Sandy and Irene). As of right now, it’s just raining pretty steadily. I guess it’s supposed to get bad tonight and tomorrow morning. I’m so grateful for all the people who have called and texted to check on me. Don’t worry: I have beer, bread, peanut butter and jelly, a case of water, and a full tank of gas. For the time being, I’m working remotely from Midtown Coffee House. 

I spent last weekend at the annual retreat for El Refugio, an organization without which we would be seriously limited in our work in Lumpkin. Without El Refugio, men would spend more time in detention for lack of a place to go between when they’re released and when they start their journeys to wherever they’re ultimately headed. Without El Refugio, families who don’t live in Lumpkin would have to make the trip in one day, because Lumpkin doesn’t have anywhere else to stay (no hotels, no AirBnB, etc.). For many who travel long distances (we get a lot of folks from North Carolina), this would be extremely grueling, if not totally impossible. Most families come on the weekends, not least of all because non-attorney visitors are only allowed to visit once a week for an hour (!!!!), but the week starts over on Sunday. So, if you visit on Saturday, you can visit again on Sunday, and you can stay at El Refugio for free. They’re a vital part of our work here, and so we were delighted to join their retreat. 

The retreat was held a Koinonia Farm, near Americus, Georgia. Koinonia Farms has a super interesting history, and lead me to think a lot about intentional communities, but that’s not really the point of this post.

Friday evening, we had planned to eat dinner at the TroubleWide (the affectionate nickname for the prefabricated house where Matt and Monica live). However, at about 4:30, Matt called to tell us that one of the ICE officers at Stewart, Officer Johnson, had asked Matt for a favor. An Egyptian guy was getting out, but his family couldn’t come until Saturday morning, and could Matt take him to El Refugio for the night? On a weeknight, this would mean that Matt would have to sleep at El Refugio with the released person, since there are no El Refugio volunteers on the weekdays. Since it was was Friday, the house happened to be staffed. However, the volunteer at the house had several visits at the detention center planned for Saturday morning, which Matt didn’t want to derail, so Matt agreed to stay with the Egyptian. The officer then handed Matt a plastic bag full of pill bottles and said “thanks, here are his meds. He’s getting released soon.” So, we waited. 4:30 became 5, 5:30, 6, 7, 8 P.M. Monica and I were waiting at the TroubleWide with Marty and a dinner that was getting cold. When Matt called again to give us a status update, Marty graciously volunteered to take over waiting for this guy.  “Plus, I need to practice my Arabic!” (Turns out that Marty lived in Palestine for seven years because of course he did). So, Matt came back, and Marty went to wait in the parking lot at Stewart. At 9:30, after we were already in Americus, Marty texted to let us know that he had picked up the Egyptian. So much for “he’s getting out soon,” but when an ICE Officer asks you for a favor, you try to comply.

On Saturday morning, I decided to skip 6:00 A.M. yoga, and joined the group for breakfast. After breakfast, we started the morning session by going around the circle and briefly introducing ourselves. There were about 25 people, all of whom were white and native-born, save three. The group included two young marrieds whose church in Oklahoma had assigned them to Georgia on their mission year. Many of the other group members were also “called by their faith” in one way or another to do the work of El Refugio. We then talked about the the core values of El Refugio (hospitality, visitation, and education through advocacy) and how they are reflected in the work that we do.

In the afternoon, we had some really excellent and energizing speakers : Kevin Caron  from Georgia Detention Watch, >Adelina Nicholls from Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), and Gabriela Marquez-Benitez from Detention Watch Network. Since I graduated from law school, I’ve gotten pretty far away from my former life in community organizing, and it felt so good to be back among these profoundly passionate people doing really radical, important work. All of their presentations were really thought-provoking, addressing what it would mean to actually abolish ICE (not just to use a trending hashtag), and focusing on the idea that radical policies (like those of the Trump Administration) require radical resistance. Some of the ideas that most struck me were:

  • The messaging error in “Families Belong Together” which became the rallying cry this summer as family separation was coming to light. The messaging should have been “families belong together out of detention” because, well, now the Administration is still detaining families, but now they’re keeping parents with their kids and this looks somehow like being more benevolent or listening to the will of the people or something.
  • The respectability politics inherent in advocacy like was happening around DACA/DAPA/the DREAM Act. There was this narrative that said “hey, I didn’t ask to be brought here. My parents brought me here when I was a kid. I didn’t do anything wrong, therefore I deserve to stay.” The problem is that this narrative implies that the inverse is true, that the parents who made the conscious choice to come here illegally (with their minor children) did do something wrong. Then we’re still parsing who “deserves” to stay and who doesn’t, which isn’t the way we should approach this issue.
  • ICE is developing relationships with other governmental entities, specifically Bureau of Prisons, to resist abolition. This can be as simple as claiming that immigration detainees have to be housed in BOP facilities because there aren’t enough beds in immigration detention centers. Then ICE and BOP get to try on their relationship, and what it would be like to work together. Gaby specifically mentioned this happening in Colorado, which is something I’d like to look into.

The presenters also did a great job of shouting out other organizations that are going great work in some overlapping areas, which I’m linking here (largely for my own future reference). I was again reminded of the community organizing staple of coalition-building. Your organization rarely has to learn how to do anything new. There is inevitably someone doing that work who can at least give you some pointers.

After the presenters, we went into Americus for the 20th Anniversary celebration of Cafe Campesino, which was a lovely event. There was a great band, a tour of the coffee roastery, and a bottomless beer option! We also toured the Habitat for Humanity Global Village and Discovery Center, as Habitat for Humanity started at Koinonia Farms too. (I have a lot of feelings about Habitat, colonialism, and the efficacy of “voluntourism” but there can only be so many feelings in one blog post).

Our last presenter on Sunday morning was from Laura, an El Refugio volunteer, and an immigration lawyer in Atlanta. She was talking about her experience volunteering at the South Texas Family Residential Center (how Orwellian is THAT?!) in Dilley with CARA Pro Bono. It was interesting to hear about this program now that I know slightly less than nothing about immigration law. There are 2400 women and children being detained in Dilley, largely from Central America. CARA has a double-wide trailer on the grounds of the detention center (i.e. inside the fence). In the trailer, the volunteers spend a week preparing women for their credible fear interviews (CFI). Having, and passing, a credible fear interview is the first step in seeking asylum. If the asylum officer conducting your interview finds that you have a credible fear of persecution should you be returned to your country, then you are referred to an immigration judge for your asylum case. At Dilley, once you pass your CFI, and you prove that you have someone to live with, ICE will parole you out of detention. Laura said that there’s about a 95% pass rate for these interviews, which is really great.

Volunteers also prepare women who do not pass their CFI to appeal that decision to an immigration judge, and then represent them at that hearing. If you don’t pass your interview, and you don’t win your appeal (or don’t appeal at all), then you’re deported.

It was interesting to hear about the limited scope of the work happening in Dilley, especially in contrast to the work being done at the SIFI sites. I would love to talk to someone who has volunteered in both places to hear what their impressions are of the efficacy of the one-week volunteer model at each.

All in all, it was so great to spend a weekend with all of these passionate people who are doing all of this remarkable work in their spare time. I’m so lucky to get to do this work for money (thanks again, Killmer, Lane & Newman for this unbelievable opportunity), and I’m so lucky to have known so many remarkable organizers in my life. As one of my favorite lawyers signs his emails: keep loving, keep fighting.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s