My Nicaraguan asylum seeker, R. O-V, was finally released. His sponsor ended up making a $10,000 donation to Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network (BIJAN), who then paid the bond. This way, when R’s case finishes, the bond money will go back into BIJAN’s bond fund and can help other people pay their bonds in the future. This is a truly incredible development, and far from ordinary. It’s also a great reminder that there really are great people in the world.
However, with release comes logistics, which has lead me to think a lot about the importance of infrastructure. Much of last week was consumed with making travel arrangements for R.O-V (who doesn’t speak a word of English) from Lumpkin, GA, to Bridgeport, CT. In the interim, he also needed new (warm) clothes, a backpack and a sim card for his cell phone. In Lumpkin, there is no public transportation, and the only store is a Dollar General. So, on Tuesday afternoon, I drove him to Walmart in Eufaula, AL, thirty minutes away. Thankfully, he had some money (from the Go Fund Me page I linked previously). The nice clerk at Walmart helped set up his new phone, he picked up a backpack, a belt, and some deodorant, and we headed back to the office. All told, this took about two hours.
The troubling part about this (beyond the fact that that was two hours I’m not at the office) is: if we didn’t do it, it couldn’t be done. There is no infrastructure in Lumpkin to support these men when they’re released. There’s no public transit to get folks where they need to go. There’s no hotel where they can stay. There aren’t even taxis available, and that’s to say nothing of the prohibitive cost of a forty-five minute taxi ride. So that ends up falling on the “down for the cause” people who live in Lumpkin, be it SIFI staff, SIFI volunteers, or Marty.
One service that Stewart does offer is they will drive men to the Groome Shuttle station in Columbus, which means one of us doesn’t have to. After R.O-V was released on Monday, another man from Nicaragua set to be released on Wednesday. As both were traveling to the New York area, we thought it would be easier (and more fun) for them to take the Greyhound together. We asked that the second man be taken to the Groome station, where he would then be picked up by Susan, (a retired schoolteacher in Columbus who houses, feeds, and drives recently released men while they’re in transit simply out of the goodness of her heart). CoreCivic had agreed to drop the second man off at Groome. However, when the time came (and the time is always fairly late), CoreCivic staff simply drove our guy and another recently released man to El Refugio and just dropped them off. When I say dropped them off, I mean literally just that: they pulled up, let the men out of the car, and drove off. Luckily, a Spanish-speaking SIFI volunteer was staying at El Refugio that night; ordinarily, the house is not staffed on weeknights, and is locked. Had the SIFI volunteer not been there, those men would have ended up either at Marty’s house or at Matt and Monica’s. You see, El Refugio, Marty’s, and the TroubleWide are all on the same lot. Luckily, Steve was there to intercept them, but then Monica had to drive them to Columbus anyway, as all the plans were contingent on the second man arriving in Columbus that night in order to travel to New York the next day with R. O-V. As with all things, Monica did this at 10 PM with a smile on her face, but the larger issue remains. This isn’t feasible, but there also doesn’t seem to be an easy answer. You can’t simply will a robust public transportation system into existence.
The last issue I’ve been thinking about in regards to systemic deficiency is the need for travel documents from ICE. A few weeks ago, I drove a released client, J.C., to the airport in Columbus to help him get on the plane. J.C. had what amounted to a permission slip from ICE: a single sheet of paper with his photo and biographical information on it, just like a standard ID, and some information about explaining why this was a proper form of identification. When security opened (because it’s such a small airport, there was only one flight that day and security is closed until an hour before the flight), we waited in line, and when we got to the podium, I explained the situation to the TSA agent. The agent then called his manager, and the manager came out and seemed annoyed and flustered. “I wish I had known about this an hour ago, he told me. “I have to make a call.” I explained that security had been closed an hour ago, and since we (SIFI) plan on doing this regularly, how should we alert TSA in the future? He told me where his office was and told me we should just knock there going forward, which I said I was happy to do. The phone call he had to make turned out to be, at most, a two-minute call to ICE, verifying J.C.’s identity. All of this was fine, albeit a little annoying from a bureaucratic standpoint (and my general distaste for people who act put out by being asked to do their jobs), but, as with all things, would have been virtually impossible for the client to do alone without an English speaker. It certainly was not as easy as it is meant to be: present the ID issued to you by ICE, along with your ticket, and head on through security to your gate. Had I not been there, I’m sure the encounter would have terrifying from the moment the first agent said he had to call his manager. Even I was a little nervous! Or, worse yet, the TSA manager could have acted like it was impossible for the client to fly because he had not given sufficient notice (not that this particular TSA manager seemed especially malicious or obstructionist, but these days, I never underestimate people to be jerks, especially to immigrants). Ultimately, things worked out fine. J.C. got on the plane, made it to New York, and was reunited with his twelve-year-old sister from whom he had been separated at the border four months earlier.
However, I learned with R.O-V’s release that, when you are released on bond, ICE doesn’t return your identity documents, even if you are fortunate enough to have them with you in detention. ICE keep your documents until your merits (e.g. asylum) case is finished. (They do return them whether you win or lose). J.C. had been paroled by ICE. So, basically, if you win your freedom in court, no ID. If you get out by the grace of ICE, you get an ID. So how is this supposed to work? You have a mechanism that allows people to be released, often to a specific, pre-identified location that is not Lumpkin, and yet there’s no procedure in place for allowing the detainees to get from point A to B.
Like so many things in this system, and particularly here in Lumpkin, the problem is maddeningly complicated, and even in the abstract it doesn’t have a good solution. So, we’ll keep ferrying people to Walmart and Columbus and wherever else, and I will remain so grateful and impressed by the selfless people all around me who will stop what they’re doing to help anyone who needs it, day or night.