(Left to right) Jess Usher, Leeann Culbreath, Juan Carlos Diaz, Adelina Nicholls, Alma Young, Kevin Joachin and Elizabeth Matherne pose in front of the Howard Auditorium stage. Photo by Jessie Shiflett

Today, the United States receives the most immigration from Mexico, which alone contributes to a little over 15 percent of the total immigration to America.

Mexican immigrants hold the highest average number of people held in detention centers. In 2018, there were 396,448 people detained in immigration detention centers; over half of the people detained were from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the rest from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

On Sept. 24, in the Howard Auditorium, a panel came to speak about the rights of these immigrants held in detention centers and the trials and tribulations they face (the largest focus being family separation), as well as suggest some methods of reform and hold an open discussion. Dr. Jess Usher, the host of this event, stated that the issue of separation of immigrant families is not a case of politics, but a case of the humanities. Usher stated, “I think especially for the ABAC community, part of any college experience should be about the exchange of ideas, it doesn’t have to be whether it’s liberal, conservative, republican or democrat, none of the above, it doesn’t matter. Are the ideas backed with evidence? Because ideas without evidence are simply opinions.” He believes that this issue affects everyone, simply because it is an issue of human turmoil in which most people can empathize with.

After giving a short explanation of what the panel hopes to accomplish, Usher introduced the first guest speaker, Dr. Juan Carlos Diaz.

Diaz was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and the reform of the immigration detainment system is one that is very personal to him. He explained his dislike for the language that surrounds immigration and his desire for the people who have immigrated to be treated like people. Diaz said, “People who are not immigrants may have a misunderstanding of how immigrants feel and also a misunderstanding about the immigration phenomenon as a whole. The media oftentimes doesn’t help, they misinform or present half-truths, so it is important that people that are not immigrants hear the version of immigrants directly.”

The next speaker of the event was Alma Young, ABAC alumni, an old employee of ABAC as the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) associate director and now works as the CAMP director at Valdosta State University. Young is a first-generation migrant student, who did not choose the path she was put on, but seized the opportunity it gave her to help other students who are in similar situations to what she experienced. She explained how she came to the United States as a child legally, but when her visa eventually expired, she was an illegal immigrant. She stated, “I realize that I am one of the lucky ones…none of that could have happened if my mom hadn’t been able to make that decision of coming here before my visa expired.” She relates to the children who are immigrants to America, and she empathizes with children in cages. She said that although they are “not in literal cages, they are still trapped because of something that their parents decided for them.”

Elizabeth Hildebrand Matherne is a lawyer who is an active Deportation Defense Attorney. Matherne explained her struggle with doing the cases that she saw as futile due to the system that was harsh and cruel, she said, “Before I was an attorney, I was a mother, I was a young mother…I have three children, and so the family is pretty much my primary, this is why I love my work…I decided I couldn’t deal with seeing how women and children were treated.”

She said she walked away from this career path and decided to get a different degree, but she said she couldn’t walk away. “I realized what we need is attorneys, attorneys who care.” She continued her speech by explaining that the court for Irwin and Stewart has some of the highest denial rates in the country, and there is a 37 percent higher chance of denial there than the average rate of the country.

The next speaker was Deacon Leeann Culbreath, one of the key creators of the South Georgia Immigrant Support Network (SGISN) as well as its hospitality house Casa Colibri. She spoke about SGISN and its creation after the realization of the immigrant experience in detention centers and the lack of humanitarian response.

“Almost every woman I have met in detention is a survivor of abuse, the husband would not fill out paperwork to allow them to be legal and held that above their heads so that they can continue to abuse them. This is a reality of a majority of the women I have befriended,” said Culbreath. Abuse is a large part of the story of immigrant women and children.

The next speaker was Kevin Joachin, a child of immigrant parents who have suffered greatly due to the trials of immigration. He stated that immigration had become a larger fear as he got older and the trials of living in fear were something that not all the people around him experienced. His mother was one of the many women who suffered from an abusive husband who would not sign her paperwork for 12 years once she had immigrated into the country.

Joachin spoke of the importance of the older generations of immigration, “As we look to the future and we see these harsh policies aimed at our community specifically to criminalize them, I ask you not to victimize our community. I ask you to return the dignity and the respect that they thought of when they thought of a better life for you in this country.”

Joachin said, “I think that having panels like the one on Tuesday opens up the space to have different kinds of conversations that people haven’t even considered, because first of all, I think that we have to admit that this space wasn’t created for undocumented people to share.”

The last speaker of the event before closing discussions was Adelina Nicholls, the receptor to the Ohtli Award. She arrived in the United States 22 years ago and explained that she feels that her importance is to give a voice to the immigrants who suffer. She spoke about the detention centers as a business, “They are making approximately $133 per person per day on average of around 5 or 6 months. You can do the math and think about how they are profiting from this.” Nicholls feels that people are affected by this every single day. Not just within immigrant communities, but everywhere. She said that in her many years working within the system for reform, she has seen little to no change.

The panel ended by asking the audience to ask questions or make comments to further engage with the panel members. Matherne answered most of the questions by explaining that most of the laws written are subject to interpretation. Matherne states that in accordance with international law, the United States is finding ways to break asylum. Culbreath interjected and stated that all people who step on United States soil are supposed to be allotted due process.

The panel ended and those who wanted to continue discussions with the panelists could approach the stage and ask their questions.

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