Immigration lawyer speaks at Constitution Day

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     Which U.S. state is the fourth highest in the number of detained immigrants and has the highest asylum application denial rate in the country? It may shock most people to find out that this state is Georgia. According to statistics from Freedom for Immigrants and the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), Georgia has approximately 3,717 immigrants in one of their three detention centers every day. The top three holders of immigrant detainees are Texas with approximately 15,852, California with 6,527, and Arizona with 3,869.

     This was just one of the sobering facts that were presented by Elizabeth Matherne, the speaker at ABAC’s annual Constitution Day event, to the students in attendance. The event is held every year and has special significance for ABAC students, as Abraham Baldwin, the founder of the school, was one of the signers of the Constitution. With the topic of immigration and due process for immigrants in detention being a big issue in current politics, the theme of the event was timely.

     Students gathered in Driggers Chapel at 2:00 on Sep. 21, with the room being nearly full. After the national anthem was sung by the ABAC Jazz Choir and Grant Thelen introduced the event, Dr. Jess Usher, Assistant Professor of History, announced the winners of this year’s Constitution Day essay contest.

     This year, students were able to choose from three questions about hate speech on college campuses and the First Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment and children of undocumented immigrants, and whether presidents should be exempt from charges and prosecution while in office. This year’s winner was Brogan Thompson, followed by runner-up Nick Rosatti.

     Elizabeth Matherne, a lawyer with the SIFI, stepped up to the podium to deliver her presentation on the rights of immigrants under the U.S. Constitution. SIFI is a project of Southern Poverty Law Center and works to provide free legal services to detainees at Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC). According to SIFI, ICDC is controlled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and “Contracted to a privately owned, for-profit corporation.” Currently, ICDC, the second largest immigrant detention center in Georgia, holds around one-thousand immigrants. Programs handed to students at the event noted that “ICDC holds the majority of women immigrant detainees in Georgia, and as such is under public scrutiny as part of the continuing crisis over family separation issues.”

     Matherne earned her law degree from the St. Thomas University School. According to Matherne, she decided to leave her career as Assistant Public Defender in order to pursue immigration law after seeing the horrors facing immigrants who attempted to go through the American legal system. She described seeing young undocumented children standing in front of a judge with no legal defense to speak on their behalf, and deciding “I didn’t want to be a part of the tragedy happening every day.”

     Matherne explained the ways in which detainees are disadvantaged while being held, most of it stemming from the fact that detention centers are typically privately owned, thus becoming a part of the for-profit prison system. According to Matherne, “Private prisons and immigration detention is an inherently toxic relationship…Department of Homeland Security is motivated to keep costs low, and detention centers are motivated to maximize their profit.”

     One of the most serious issues facing immigrants held in detention, according to Matherne, is the lack of medical care. She described reports of detention centers where wheelchair users had no access to showers or toilets. She also told the audience that since May 2017, four immigrant detainees have died in the state of Georgia, calling it a “medical crisis.”

ABAC Jazz choir sings National Anthem
Photo credit Alyssa-Marie Behrendt.

     Matherne read their names and told their stories. Jean Jimenez-Joseph was a 27 year old from Panama who committed suicide after being held in solitary confinement for over two weeks in Stewart Detention Center in May 2017. The day after Joseph died, Atulkumar Babubhai Patel from India died at the age of 58 at Grady Memorial Hospital, after suffering complications from congestive heart failure that went untreated at the Atlanta City Detention Center.

      After this sobering moment, Matherne took the last few minutes of her presentation to remind students that they can do something to help change things for the better. She put out the call for volunteers, telling students that they have opportunities to visit as translators or simply as humanitarians and give detainees encouragement and hope.

      After the question and answer portion ended the event was “officially” over, and most students left to head back to class. But at the front of the chapel, Matherne and Walters, along with Dr. Usher, were surrounded by students who were asking questions and eager to get involved in any way they could. The students had been impacted by what they had heard and we’re learning even more from the personal conversations they got to have. The message of the day ran deeper than laws and legalities, summed up by Walters when she said, “We believe in the simple moral truth that all people deserve to be treated with dignity.”

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