Immigration has been a polarizing issue in the United States possibly since its birth. This election year it has become a topic of harsh disagreement on both sides of the debate with improper stereotyping of the immigrant population dominating most discussions.
Maryville College junior Hannah Kirby is working to erase some of the stigma associated with the immigrant population. She is organizing a group of bilingual students to meet with undocumented immigrants at The Stewart Detention Center in April.
It started this past J-term when Kirby accompanied the freshman Bonner J-term class on a civil rights tour all over the southeastern United States. They visited monumental sites such as Memphis and Selma, but the location that most stood out to Kirby was The Stewart Detention Center located in the tiny town of Lumpkin, Georgia.
“[The detention center] is a facility where undocumented immigrants go while they are awaiting a determination in their immigration case,” said Kirby, specifying that it is not a jail for criminals but a holding facility. “Most people are in there because they turned themselves in or [because of] traffic violations.”
Such was the case with one of the men the students got the opportunity to meet. Due to confidentiality, his name cannot be disclosed, but his story involves a traffic violation. The man had lived in the United States for 50 years—since he was 10 years old—and was pulled over one day for speeding for the first time in his life. When the officer saw that he did not have any papers to prove his citizenship, he was taken into custody and transported to the detention center.
In J-term, the students in Kirby’s class also worked closely with an organization called El Refugio. El Refugio does a number of services to help the immigrants, the first being to provide housing for their families who want to come visit them. Since the Stewart Detention Center holds immigrants from all over the country, many of the people awaiting the conclusion of their case are forced to leave their families behind. Their families may live in states as far spread as Vermont, Texas and New York, but El Refugio helps families from these far away states visit.
More often than not, however, the immigrants are very lonely and receive few visitors. To address their loneliness, El Refugio arranges visits between the immigrants and student/church groups. It also organizes a pen-pal program so that the immigrants can write and receive letters from students they have met. Kirby said that for many of the residents, these group visits are the only social interactions they have to look forward to, and the letter writing helps them continue to feel connected to the outside world.
Kirby has received several letters from one of the young men they visited. His story is also one that complicates the nature of the immigration debate.
The young man Kirby met is a soldier from the Middle East and had entered the United States legally to obtain his Master’s degree. Less than two months after he arrived, something went wrong with his visa, and he was faced with two options: go back to the Middle East or stay in the U.S. and try to fight for the right to continue his education. He chose to stay, but he still hopes someday to be able to go home.
“He said, ‘You know, I didn’t even want to stay here. America is no daisy,’” Kirby remembered. “It was really naive of me not to consider that people don’t necessarily want to be here, but they have to out of necessity.”
That necessity appears to be very strong for these individuals to risk life in the detention center over staying in their home countries. Kirby explained how common it is for the immigrants to be mistreated while they are in the center even though many of them, like the Middle Eastern soldier, have never intentionally broken the law.
“The guards treat them like they are not people,” Kirby said of the living conditions.
Currently, Kirby has plans underway to return to The Stewart Detention Center this year and connect bilingual students with the immigrants in the center who cannot speak English. She is working very closely with faculty in the Languages and Literature department and MC’s Latino Student Alliance to take eight students to the center for a weekend in April.
Kirby wants this to become an annual trip that students studying languages can take, and she would like for the pen-pal program to become part of upper-level conversational courses in Spanish.
More than anything, Kirby said that she wants this to offer some perspective on the immigration debate.
“Immigration reform is a hot topic right now, and I think that the reason so few people are in favor of the legalization process is because they don’t actually understand what is going on in these people’s lives,” Kirby said. “…These people are here for a variety of reasons, not just to take jobs but seeking asylum.”