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Program to provide legal aid to undocumented immigrants
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Julie Gonzalez is a U.S. citizen who lives in Gainesville, but her husband Jose Manuel, an undocumented immigrant, is now back in his native Mexico.

“I miss my husband,” Gonzalez said. “I believe we were brought together divinely to have our daughter together. The Bible says, ‘what God has brought together let no man put asunder.’”

Gonzalez said that Manuel, as he likes to be called, wasn’t deported, but left on Jan. 27, 2016, of his own choosing out of fear of being arrested and sent to the Stewart Detention Center — a privately operated facility under contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Lumpkin, Ga., about 143 miles southeast of Atlanta.

Manuel, now 53, was detained at Stewart for almost a year after he was pulled over in Gainesville on suspicion of driving under the influence. He was sent to Stewart in September 2010 and did not get a hearing until June the next year. Gonzalez described her husband’s detention at Stewart as a nightmare.

This week, the Southern Poverty Law Center, headquartered in Montgomery, Ala., announced the launching of a new program to enlist and train lawyers to provide free legal representation to immigrants who have been detained in the Southeast and are facing deportation proceedings. SPLC said it plans to initiate its program at the Stewart Detention Center, according to Daniel Werner, the group’s senior supervising attorney.

Werner told The Times on Friday that Stewart was chosen to begin the SPLC program because it is one of the largest ICE detention facilities in the Southeast.

“Stewart has a long history of pushing immigrants through (deportation hearings) without counsel and right to due process,” he said.

About 95 percent of the approximately 1,700 men at Stewart don’t have attorneys as they wait to find out whether they’ll be deported, according to Werner. 

Gainesville attorney Arturo Corso is one of the 219 attorneys who signed up this week since SPLC announced the pro bono program for immigrants, Werner said.

Corso said he’d heard the program was in the works. When SPLC officially announced it, he wasted no time signing up.

“When there’s  an emergency situation, we stand up,” Corso said of the lawyers joining the SPLC program. “The majority of detainees there never have a lawyer… This is a disaster. It’s an assembly line of injustice.”

Werner said lawyers recruited would get training online and on the ground before the program actually starts sometime in mid- to late April.

Lawyers plan to get referrals of detainees in need of legal assistance through a Catholic Charities program offering legal orientation at the Stewart facility. He said ICE allows detainees to call out, but doesn’t allow calls to come in.

Attempts to contact ICE for comment were unsuccessful.

After countless trips to Stewart and pleading on her husband’s behalf, Gonzalez said Manuel was released following a deportation hearing before an immigration judge.

“I think the judge took a liking to our daughter, Suzanah, and must have felt felt sorry for us,” Gonzalez said.

However, unable to obtain legal status, and tired of living under constant fear of being arrested and sent back to Stewart, Gonzalez said Manuel returned to Mexico.

“It’s been hard on all of us, but I think it’s hurt our daughter the most,” Gonzalez said. “All this has beaten her down. Her grades dropped. My daughter had ambitions of going to Auburn or Clemson. Not now. I’m trying to get her back on track… The immigration laws need to be changed.”