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ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION: Immigrant rights advocates getting arrested for a cause

December 6th, 2010

When 54-year-old Pamela Alberda crossed the guard line at Stewart Detention Center to protest her son-in-law's incarceration last month, she joined a growing number of immigration rights advocates who are beginning to commit civil disobedience for their cause.

Alberda's son-in-law, Pedro Guzman, has been detained at the Lumpkin, Ga., facility for more than a year. Meanwhile, his American-born wife and 4-year-old son are fighting to keep the Guatemala native in the country.

"It's been so long and we've been so frustrated with the actions that we've taken not having more impact, that it felt really important to do this," said Alberda, who was arrested for criminal trespass along with seven others at the Nov. 19 protest. Four people were arrested days earlier at a protest in Atlanta.

Witness for Peace's Catalina Nieto and Galen Cohee-Baynes
at the Stewart Detention Center Vigil

For years, advocates have tried everything from rallies to lawsuits in Georgia seeking immigration reform. Now, some are escalating their tactics, risking not only arrest to make their point but the possibility of a backlash from Georgians who want tougher enforcement of federal immigration laws.

U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, a Marietta Republican, said he supports the right to peaceful protest. But he still supports legislative efforts to crack down by barring illegal immigrants from attending college, denying birthright citizenship and granting certain immigration enforcement powers to local authorities.

Pro-immigrant groups may want amnesty, but they are the "vocal minority," Gingrey said.

"The not-as-vocal majority are the people that are appalled by that," Gingrey said. "The more that the vocal minority advocates to make our immigration policies even more lax, hopefully they will be a wake-up call to the silent majority."

Pro-immigrant activists say the decision to begin committing civil disobedience was the result of a series of discussions and attorney consultations over about nine months. The talks were prompted in part by acts of civil disobedience happening in other parts of the country, said Anton Flores-Maisonet, of Georgia Detention Watch.

In May, 16 prominent New Yorkers who were outraged by Arizona's immigration law were arrested in lower Manhattan after about 100 people linked their arms to form a chain that stopped traffic.

The first civil disobedience arrests connected with immigrant advocates in Georgia occurred Nov. 10. Four people were charged with obstructing traffic when they blocked the intersection of Washington and Trinity streets during a protest at the Board of Regents meeting in Atlanta.

The protesters opposed the board's recent decision to ban illegal immigrants from attending any public Georgia college that has rejected academically qualified applicants for the past two academic years because of space or other issues.

Those jailed that day included the Rev. Markel Hutchins of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Joe Beasley of the Rainbow Push Coalition; Adelina Nicholls, the executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights; and Rich Pellegrino of the Cobb Immigrant Coalition.

Nine days later, eight demonstrators were arrested following a march outside the Stewart Detention Center. They sought the closing of the remote Southwest Georgia facility and the release of Guzman, who has been held for 14 months without bond while his family in Durham, N.C., appeals his deportation order.

Guzman, 30, had previously been granted work visas. But since he came to the United States when he was only 8, his immigration status was tied to his mother's. Guzman's mother was denied permanent residency last year, and a subsequent order for Guzman to appear in immigration court was sent to the wrong address, according to his wife, Emily Guzman. When he failed to appear, a judge ordered Guzman to be deported.

Flores-Maisonet, who organized the Stewart Detention Center march, was arrested along with Alberda.

"We wondered what would it look like if more and more mother-in-laws and wives and loved ones and children decided to act in a direct way to stand against such injustice?" he said. "Our political and our faith institutions would have to listen."

Before both of the protests, the demonstrators alerted police about their plans. They say they are drawing upon the philosophies of civil rights leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., respectfully seeking change through nonviolence.

Sgt. Curtis Davenport, spokesman for the Atlanta Police Department, said officers had no problem with the demonstrators.

"We actually appreciate them calling and giving us the heads-up on any kind of disturbance so we're not caught off guard by it," Davenport said.

Some question whether civil disobedience will help or hurt the cause.

Stewart County Chief Magistrate Judge G. Wayne Ammons spoke with several protesters prior to the march in Lumpkin. Afterward, he released the protesters on $250 bond.

"They did it trying to, I guess, open people's eyes, but I don't think that's the way to get it done," Ammons said. "They could have made a protest there and gone about their business."

Robert Rupard, a conservative blogger from Buford, was skeptical that anyone would be swayed by the recent arrests.

"If you believe something that strongly and you want to do that, that's what this country is about," Rupard said. "But I don't think they're going to accomplish anything except maybe getting a few college kids to whine."

The pent-up frustration with Republicans and Democrats alike for failing to enact comprehensive immigration reform will probably fuel more civil disobedience going forward, said Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. He believes it may become a necessary tool for opponents of an Arizona-style law in Georgia and those working to maintain access to higher education for illegal immigrants.

"The tactic of civil disobedience is to escalate and ensure the issue of illegal immigration does not go by the wayside," Gonzalez said.