This Group of Women Ended ICE Detention in Atlanta
“It was driven by a such a diverse group of women … committed to justice and human rights. When it comes to moral issues, women are quite frankly so much more courageous than men.”
Earlier this summer, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms watched the horrifying reports of asylum-seeking families being separated at the US/Mexico border and detained by immigration officials. At the time, Bottoms decided she “could not stand by as the mayor of this great city and not take a very close look at what, if anything, the city was doing that made us complicit in this inhumane policy,” she said during a recent press conference.
Because of her and the efforts of several other women, the City of Atlanta announced last week it would no longer hold detainees on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The change, championed by immigration advocates as a “victory,” came down the same day the Trump administration announced plans to allow the government to detain migrant children indefinitely, a reversal from current rules that stipulate minors can only be detained up to 20 days. According to new data obtained by the New York Times, the number of migrant children detained in federal facilities reached a total of 12,800 this month—the highest number ever recorded.
The beginning of the end of Atlanta’s relationship with ICE started in June, when Bottoms directed the City of Atlanta to temporarily refuse the acceptance of any new ICE detainees to Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC) until the Trump administration’s “despicable policy” of separating families had been “rescinded.” A 2010 contract with the US Marshals Service agreed to pay the city $78 a day for each detainee held at the city jail; in June, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reports, there were 205 immigrants being held for ICE.
The mayor’s office also formed an advisory committee to study the issue of immigrant detention more in-depth. That work was spearheaded by Michelle Maziar and Luisa Cardona of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Georgia Rep. Bee Nguyen and Shana Tabak, executive director of the Tahirih Justice Center’s Atlanta branch, were appointed co-chairs of the committee.
While the advisory committee, which included detention experts, immigration attorneys and advocates, and people who’d formerly been detained Atlanta’s jail and other Georgia detention centers, discussed how to move forward, local governments across the country were canceling their own agreements with ICE. In June, for example, Sacramento County voted against renewing a multi-million dollar contract with the agency.
“It just felt inherently unjust for Sacramento to make money from dealing with ICE,” Phil Serna, a Sacramento County supervisor told the New York Times. “For me, it came down to an administration that is extremely hostile to immigrants. I didn’t feel we should be part of that.”
After six weeks of meetings, phone conferences, and one public hearing, the city of Atlanta’s advisory committee ultimately recommended the city stop housing federal prisoners detained by ICE altogether. Bottoms agreed, and issued an executive order to that effect on September 6. At the time of the announcement, there were five detainees left at ACDC. “We will no longer be complicit with a policy that intentionally inflicts misery on a vulnerable population without giving any thought to the horrific fallout,” the mayor said last week. “As the birthplace of the civil rights movement, we are called to be better than this.”
Bottoms also noted “the significant financial hit” the city’s budget would take because of this change. As of June, the city made more than $7.5 million this fiscal year through this arrangement, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reports. “I think that really speaks to how strongly the city of Atlanta feels about our position as it relates to ICE,” Bottoms said. “There are just some things you can’t put a price tag on.”
“As the birthplace of the civil rights movement, we are called to be better than this.”
Maziar, the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, tells Broadly it was “overwhelmingly clear” that ending the city’s relationship with ICE was the right thing to do.
“What we saw at the border was really unlike anything any of us have ever seen,” Maziar says. “To rip babies from the arms of their mothers when they’re fleeing violence in their own countries—it’s vicious and it’s cruel.”
“Historically,” she continues, “the city of Atlanta has always stood up in the face of injustice. We are in such a moral crisis right now. We wanted to do what we could to ensure that people know that the City of Atlanta welcomes them, that we believe in them, that you can pursue the American dream here.”
But the decision to end the contract with ICE wasn’t made lightly. One of the committee’s biggest concerns was knowing that closing the Atlanta jail to detainees would mean these immigrants, often detained for nonviolent offenses, would instead end up at for-profit detention centers in other parts of the state with potentially worse conditions.
It’s something that Nguyen, who represents House District 89 and is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, thought about early on. “When I entered into this space, I ultimately felt like no matter the decision, no matter the outcome, there was going to be a tradeoff because, quite frankly, we need comprehensive immigration reform,” she says. “The systems in place and our ability to change that are just not good enough for what we need.”
One of the things it boiled down to, she says, was that every single person on the committee who’d formerly been detained asked that Atlanta end its contract with ICE. Prioritizing their voices, Nguyen says, was important.
Of course, the work to close ACDC to ICE started long before toddlers were taken from their parents at the southern US border. In August, Project South and Georgia Detention Watch released a 106-page report titled Inside Atlanta’s Immigrant Cages, in which the authors reported that immigrants kept at ACDC “were subject to countless violations of international human rights and detention standards.” After interviewing dozens of detained immigrants, touring the facility, and inspecting documents, the report’s authors determined that the conditions at the detention center were “nowhere close to humane.”
In an op-ed published in Colorlines last month, Project South’s Priyanka Bhatt and Azadeh Shahshahani, both women who contributed to the report, pointed out that “Atlanta has been profiting off the imprisonment of immigrants at ACDC” all the while toting that it’s a “welcoming city” for immigrants. On Thursday after Bottoms signed her executive order, Shahshahani, also a member of the advisory committee, tweeted: “One down, three more immigration detention centers in Georgia to go! Here's to shutting them all down!”
According to 11Alive, an ICE spokesperson said Atlanta's announcement had "essentially no impact" on ICE operations because the other federal facilities in the state managed a majority of the agency’s detention capacity in Georgia.
Nevertheless, Maziar of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs says the move to no longer detain immigrants at ACDC is an example of the “amazing things” that can happen when women lead. “It was driven by a such a diverse group of women … committed to justice and human rights. When it comes to moral issues, women are quite frankly so much more courageous than men.”
Nguyen agrees, adding that all of the women involved felt personally impacted by the issue: From her own feelings of “obligation as a daughter to former refugees who risked everything to be able to come here” to Cardona’s history of entering the United States as a young person who was undocumented. “Mayor Bottoms also talked about her role as a mother and really being unable to contend with this idea of children being separated from their parents,” Nguyen adds.
“We’ve always been caretakers in our lives,” she continues. “I think we’ve always had that role.
To me, women have traditionally taken care of big things and little things. It’s that obligation emotionally that really reminds us that we have a responsibility to step up.”