By Rebecca Kanner
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
On Saturday, November 22, 2014, I participated in non-violent civil disobedience at Stewart Detention Center, crossing the line onto Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) property to call for the institution’s closure. When participating in civil disobedience, I am practicing a lesson that I learned many years ago in my ninth grade civics class: that sometimes breaking the law is a viable action by concerned people to protect our democracy.
Expressing my concern, I walked across that line to shine a light on a facility that I have only learned about over the last several years. I attended my first vigil at Stewart Detention Center in 2010; I returned again in 2011 and my third time was this past November. Each time was an incredibly moving experience. I was touched to hear stories from family members and friends about those who were detained in the facility. I heard about the horrible conditions inside and the tragic situations of those men locked up. Hearing these voices moved me to act and with my action express solidarity with the immigrants imprisoned at the detention center.
The addition of Emma Lazarus’ 1883 poem, The New Colossus, to the Statue of Liberty in 1903 turned what was an icon of freedom into the Mother of Exiles, the “unofficial greeter of incoming immigrants” (John T. Cunningham). There have been times when our country was kinder to immigrants. Three of my four grandparents were immigrants, coming to this country as young children in the early years of the 20th century. They left the old country and the pogroms of Eastern Europe for a better life. My mother’s mother, Gramma Goldie, never did become a citizen and most of her life in the U.S., she was undocumented, though it was not talked about. But she was treated much differently than we treat immigrants today. She lived her life, raising my mother as a single parent, working, paying taxes, and collecting social security in her retirement. That was then and this is now. Now the immigration system is much changed. Now our country is much harsher, much meaner to the immigrant, to the stranger.
My action last November was greatly influenced by Jewish teachings on the treatment of immigrants. At my synagogue, in my home and at the Passover Seder each year, I learned that as Jews, we were once strangers and thus, we must care for the stranger in our midst. Leviticus commands, “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” [19:33-34]. Concern for the stranger is an integral part of Judaism, with 35 references in the Torah – the most repeated of any commandment. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism teaches that “our own people’s history as ‘strangers’ reminds us of the many struggles faced by immigrants today, and we affirm our commitment to create the same opportunities for today’s immigrants that were so valuable to our own community not so many years ago.” Jewish tradition and Jewish experience compels me to act.
I hope that from my action last November, more people will learn about Stewart Detention Center. And I hope that as more people learn about it, and other such facilities, this awareness will turn into action, action to close this private prison and action to change our county’s immigration policy. We are a nation of immigrants and our policies need to reflect this.
This is the statement that I would have made in Stewart County, Georgia Superior Court on Thursday, April 9, 2015, if the case had not been dismissed. The cases against my co-defendants, Kevin Caron, Moe Fitzsimons, Anton Flores and Jason McGaughey were also dismissed. The charge against us was criminal trespass, which carries a maximum sentence of 12 months and a maximum fine of $1000.
With much appreciation and love to many: Our lawyers in court: McCall Calhoun & Brooks Franklin; our lawyers who helped up prepare for court: Anna Lellelid, Alison McCrary & Bill Quigley (along with Brooks and McCall); Maria Luisa Rosal, Roy Bourgeois & the rest of the SOA Watch staff; The Alterna community; the dedicated activists who joined us in Lumpkin at the courthouse; Detention Watch Network; my friends, family and support community; all who sent messages of hope and those who kept us in your hearts and thoughts.