A group of protesters plans to hold a prayer vigil today in front of the North Georgia Detention Center on Main Street as part of a nationwide campaign calling attention to federal immigration detention policies.
The group, made up mostly of members of St. Michael’s Catholic Church, has obtained a permit from Gainesville police to demonstrate at about noon on the sidewalk outside the building, site of the old Hall County jail and now being leased by Hall County to the private Corrections Corporation of America.
The vigil is part of a national campaign launched today by the Detention Watch Network called, "Dignity, Not Detention: Preserving Human Rights and
"Nationally, the campaign is directed toward President Obama, asking that the expansion of immigration detention be stopped," said Azadeh Shahshahani, immigrants’ rights project director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. "Locally, we are asking Immigration and Customs Enforcement to put in place binding standards for treatment of detainees, to rely on more humane and community-based alternatives to detention and to put a stop to the transfer of detainees from facility to facility, away from their families and communities."
The North Georgia Detention Center can hold as many as 500 detainees, who are people identified as being in the country illegally and awaiting deportation by ICE. Most of the detainees at the center are not from the Hall County area. A large number are brought to the center from the Charlotte, N.C., area.
Most detainees spend between 30 and 90 days at the facility before moving on. Hall County entered into an agreement with ICE to hold the detainees, with CCA acting as a subcontractor. The company leases the facility from Hall County for $2 million a year.
The Gainesville protest is one of several planned today across the country and may be the smallest. The other protests will be staged in Phoenix, San Antonio, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Alan Shope, the chairman of St. Michael Catholic Church’s social justice committee and a local organizer of what he said will be a prayer vigil, said the purpose is to call for immigration reform.
"We do think a nation has to secure its borders, but at the same time we think it should be done in a way that doesn’t hurt families," Shope said.
Shope said the church was trying to "walk the line" of protesting the system while respecting the employees of Corrections Corporation of America. Shope said the church has a good relationship with the North Georgia Detention Center’s warden, Stacey Stone. The church’s priest is allowed in to celebrate Mass with the detainees, Shope said.
"We have not seen any of the abuse or neglect here that you hear about at some other detention centers," Shope said. "Our problem is not with any specific instances in this facility; it’s with the overall system it’s a part of."
Corrections Corporation of America spokesman Steve Owen said in a statement that CCA "provides services for immigration detention, but, as a company, does not take a position with respect to the broader immigration policy.
"However, CCA strives to humanely operate a safe, secure facility that upholds the dignity of all detainees entrusted in our care," Owen said.
Owen said ICE has staff on-site at the detention center and that CCA is contractually required to meet the federal agency’s detention standards.
Ivan Ortiz-Delgado, a spokesman for ICE, said in a statement that the agency "respects the fundamental right of individuals to advocate for reform of our nation’s immigration laws.
"Moreover, last fall, ICE announced a major overhaul of the immigration detention system to prioritize health, safety and uniformity among our facilities while ensuring security, efficiency and fiscal responsibility," Ortiz-Delgado said. "These reforms include aggressive steps to increase oversight and fundamentally change the immigration detention system. ICE has taken important initial steps to change this system and is committed to finishing the job."