The separation of families at the border the summer has rightfully sparked national outrage. As the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy took effect, children were torn from their parents in shameful, inhumane, and traumatizing ways. Parents were incarcerated in city jails and privately-run prisons around the country, and communities began to feel complicit in these practices.
But the city of Atlanta is taking action. Earlier this week, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms made a historic announcement: after months of careful deliberation, she ended the city’s detention contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). No longer will the city jail be used to house immigrants who are pursuing legal protection, including those who have been inhumanely separated from their children.
I have seen the importance of keeping families together with my own eyes, and I know how important our role is as Atlantans on a national level.
I recently traveled to the South Texas border, where I provided legal representation to immigrant mothers and fathers who were detained after having been separated from their children. Each of them was distraught, devastated, and despondent. I also had the opportunity to advise families on their legal claims after they had been reunified with their children, and I was moved to see that many looked to Georgia for a fresh start.
Amidst sweltering July heat, in a modest hostel on the grounds of a Catholic Church in a border town in Texas, ecstatic mothers and fathers were spending their first nights with their children after weeks, if not months of forced separation. Despite their joy at being reunited with their children, they were understandably fearful of our immigration system and anxious about what their confusing legal papers meant for their futures.
As I met with one mom and her three children, each clinging to her more tightly than the next, I asked where they planned to go after leaving the shelter. The mother slowly reached into her pocket, pulled out a small, crumpled piece of notebook paper, and carefully read the name of the place where her cousin, a U.S. citizen, lived: “At-lan-ta.”
A huge smile came to my face. As an attorney who represents asylum seekers in Atlanta, I was given an opportunity to show her that we could do right by her. I, and my colleagues in this fight for justice, could help her pursue the asylum status to which she is entitled under U.S. law.
One in ten Atlantans is an immigrant. We should ensure that this city remains welcoming and inclusive for the most vulnerable among us. We should continue to value family unity. And we should be proud that we are trailblazers among our sister cities around the country.
Prior to signing her executive order this week, Mayor Bottoms asked a group of immigration advocates and experts to offer recommendations as she grappled with the city’s responsibilities to ensure safety and compliance with the law. I, along with several immigration lawyers, community advocates, and formerly detained individuals in Atlanta, submitted recommendations calling on the city to end the incarceration of ICE detained immigrants at the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC) permanently.
In addition to ending the city’s detention contract with ICE, we recommended expanding legal services through Atlanta’s Office of the Public Defender and local nonprofits to provide easier access to representation for more people living in the city. Atlanta should also leverage its relationship with Customs and Border Protection to allow asylum seekers to meet with legal counsel prior to their Credible Fear Interviews, as other jurisdictions have successfully done.
We still have so much we can do to help those who are seeking protection. But Mayor Bottoms has demonstrated vision on this critical issue, and her thoughtful, family-centered policies will carry on Atlanta’s legacy as a national civil and human rights leader.
Mayor Bottoms’ refusal to be complicit in unjust federal policies separating parents from their children demonstrates to our country that Atlanta takes pride in welcoming the diversity and strength of immigrant communities. As they flee unimaginable violence and persecution, these families deserve better. Let’s work together to show these families that although our country may have failed them at the border, they will find a warmer welcome here in Atlanta.
Tahirih Atlanta Executive Director Shana Tabak acted as Co-chair of Mayor Bottoms’ Advisory Committee on Immigrant Detention.