Locals give released immigrant detainees ‘Christmas miracle’

Published 12:10 am Thursday, December 26, 2019

NATCHEZ — Several Natchez residents recently came to the aid of dozens of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees who are bonded out of the Adams County Correctional Center.

Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law said he is part of the Mississippi Immigration Coalition that formed in response to mass ICE raids that took place in Mississippi Aug. 7.

The coalition posts bond for inmates out of Adams County on a weekly basis, Johnson said, adding last weekend presented a “Christmas miracle” as nearly 20 detainees were freed from the facility.

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“In this Christmas season, I’ve learned that Natchez has many committed, kind and generous people who have worked tirelessly on behalf of nearly two-dozen people released since Friday,” Johnson said. “During a time when we are celebrating a person born as a refugee in a strange land, I find this very fitting.”

Johnson said the coalition raised more than $500,000 in bonds for those detained in Mississippi and Louisiana after the ICE raids. An immigration judge deemed all of those released not to be a danger to communities before they were eligible for bond, Johnson said.

The Adams County prison located just off of U.S. 84 is one of two facilities in the state that houses ICE detainees, whom the coalition works to transport out of prisons and back to their families while they await trial, Johnson said.

To be eligible for release, each person bonded out had to be teamed with someone who could sign release forms and take them to a shelter or transportation service, Johnson said.

Johnson said through texting chains and phone calls, food, shelter, transportation, clothing and even translators for those individuals were provided by the Natchez community.

“Within the Mississippi coalition, we have a team of organizers who arrange for these services, primarily through local volunteers who feel passionately that immigrants being released from detention facilities deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” Johnson said. “There are — right there in Natchez — a group of committed people who have done incredible work on behalf of immigrants released from Adams County. As long as the detention center exists the need will not go away.”

Members of First Presbyterian Church of Natchez and other individuals and groups stepped up to provide those services, said Madeline Iles, a student at the University of Mississippi law school.

Their deeds range from giving monetary support for gas, food, housing or other needs to translating the different languages along the ride to the airport or bus station.

Iles said the group really came together out of sheer need between Friday and Saturday last week when 19 young women were going to be released from the correctional center all at once.

Iles said people donated blankets, food, offered places to sleep and a ride to the airport and even gave up the coats off their backs to prevent the women from being sent out into a cold December night on their own without street clothes.

“This was not an organized group until last weekend,” Iles said. “We found out there were people in Adams County who were in need and we tried to fill the need. I can’t even tell how many people helped. I’m so proud of my community for stepping up like they did. … Regardless of politics, they saw that people needed help and they went above and beyond to provide it.”

Iles said one group of women asked if they could go for a walk shortly after their release, and so she took them for a stroll downtown and along the Natchez bluff to admire the Mississippi River scenery.

Iles said she realized then that some of the detainees had not been able to enjoy walking around outside for about six or seven months.

“I couldn’t speak the languages, but I was able to communicate with them somewhat,” she said. “A lot of them are fleeing their country because of abuse or were leaving violent situations and seeking asylum in America. Some were already here and working and were taken from their workplace. The only reason they’re in the system is because of their immigration status. They are not violent by any sense of the word.”

Mimi Miller said she offered beds to those released over the past several weeks — usually only one person at a time. Last weekend was the first that so many people needed help all at once, she said.

Miller said most of the people she helped were very young — between 18 and 40 years old — and hardly any of them were native to Mexico.

“Six of them went straight to the airport and were with their families the next day,” Miller said. “… The Natchez community really came together. Cliff texted that night and said, ‘Do you think Natchez can pull off a Christmas miracle?’ I honestly didn’t know if we could pull it off, but we did.”