About 50 people gathered outside an immigration detention center in midtown Gainesville Thursday to protest immigration policies they said lead to broken families and undue hardships for working people.
Demonstrators from St. Michael Catholic Church, Detention Watch Network and others held a prayer vigil and gave testimony in an hourlong, peaceful demonstration outside the North Georgia Detention Center, former site of the Hall County jail. Protesters said current federal and local policies too often lead to the deportation of people who have committed no serious crimes, leaving behind children and families who struggle to survive.
“We see it every day, good people, the bread winners of their family, being picked up and deported,” said Alan Shope, St. Michael’s social justice committee chairman. “It’s leaving so much pain, and those are the people we are trying to be a voice for.”
Shope said the group was protesting immigration policies and had no specific problems with the staff of the North Georgia Detention Center, which is operated by the Corrections Corporation of America under a contract with Hall County.
The company leases the former Hall County jail location from the county for $2 million annually and holds as many as 500 detainees for the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency. Many of the detainees, who are awaiting deportation proceedings, come from other parts of the state and country, though some are from Hall County.
No officials from ICE or CCA were present for the permitted protest, held just a few feet from the detention center’s front doors.
CCA spokesman Steve Owen said in a statement that the employees at the North Georgia Detention Center “provide a safe and secure environment for the detainees entrusted to our care, and do so in a professional manner that respects the dignity of every individual.”
“CCA provides services for immigration detention but as a company does not take a position with respect to broader immigration policy,” Owen said.
ICE spokesman Ivan Ortiz-Delgado noted that the agency last fall announced a major overhaul of its immigration detention system to prioritize health and safety for detainees.
“ICE has taken important initial steps to change this system and is committed to finishing the job,” he said.
Ortiz-Delgado said in a statement that the federal agency “respects the fundamental right of individuals to advocate for reform of our nation’s immigration laws.”
Diana Mendoza, a secretary at Gainesville Exploration Academy who spoke at Thursday’s protest, said she has seen the fallout from current immigration policies in the schools.
“Our children have really suffered from families being divided,” she said. “They are innocent, and they have to go through this. We can make a difference, I know we can.”
The protest was part of a nationwide campaign organized by the Detention Watch Network and the American Civil Liberties Union called “Dignity, Not Detention.”
Bojana Jankova, 18, was one of 11 international students from Indiana’s Goshen College who attended the protest. The group spent the previous day at the Stewart Detention Center, an immigration holding facility in the city of Lumpkin.
“It’s a huge issue in the United States,” Jankova said. “I just want to support this movement, because I believe everyone deserves equal opportunity.”
Everitt Howe, a member of Detention Watch Georgia from Sandy Springs, said he and others from the group came to Gainesville on Thursday to show solidarity.
“We don’t need more jails, we need fewer jails,” Howe said. “These are real people, and a lot of them are not felons, but they’re thrown in jail like hardened criminals. It’s really sad.”
Azadeh Shahshahani, immigrants’ rights project director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, said the protest, one of several held Thursday at detention facilities across the country, only marked the beginning of the campaign.
“We expect several more targeted actions,” Shahshahani said. “We’re going to keep at this.”