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UUSC Values in Action: Defeating an Immigrant Detention Center in Marietta, Georgia

How a coalition of UUs, allies and activists helped prevent the opening of a new migrant child detention center in Georgia.

By Helen Hobson on March 10, 2020

Helen Hobson, a member of the Emerson Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Marietta, Georgia, wrote a personal account of her congregation’s successful advocacy against the building of an immigrant detention center.

On December 11, 2019, a diverse group of UUs, neighbors, and local grassroots immigrant justice activists showed up en masse at the Marietta City Council meeting in Marietta, Georgia to express our vehement opposition to opening a detention center for immigrant children in our city. Looking at the sea of people with signs resisting the zoning variance, the city council got the clear message that they needed to vote against the inhumane caging of children in our community. The significant win that we had in defeating the opening of this child detention center came through strong solidarity and UU values and support.

Emerson Unitarian Universalist Congregation’s immigration justice committee was born in January 2017, crafting our mission and core values around the UUSC/UUA’s Love Resists campaign for expanded sanctuary. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been running aggressive campaigns in Georgia, and our congregation is located in one of Georgia’s five counties that have signed onto 287g, a voluntary agreement between ICE and local sheriff offices which deputize sheriff deputies as ICE agents. Being in a region targeted by ICE, the metro Atlanta area has been a recipient of funding from UUSC to support the New Sanctuary Movement of Atlanta in organizing interfaith action for immigrant justice in the northern metro areas of the city.

We have grown in our relationship with the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), a UUSC partner, showing up to county commission and sheriff meetings about 287g and helping them distribute Know Your Rights cards. They have also been instrumental in helping us understand the history and current injustice of the criminalization and detention of immigrants in the United States.

The combination of partner relationships, local and national support, and a strong base of knowledge and organization within the congregation, meant that we were ready and able to act. When we learned through local media of the potential opening of a detention center for immigrant children several miles from our congregation, (supported by a federal grant from the Department of Health and Human Services), we mobilized. The media served a vital role both in uncovering the intentions of the individual, a pastor of a small church who had proposed the “shelter,” and also in covering the opposition, which put the city in the national spotlight.

One of our Emerson members had a laser focus on the Marietta Zoning Board’s decision to approve this “shelter” and wrote an effectively articulated letter of appeal to the Marietta City Council; the moral arguments generated extensive press coverage in an Associated Press story that ran in more than 1000 publications including the New York Times. Because our minister, Rev. Deborah Bennett, had signed the appeal letter to the city council, local media picked up the story of one minister in opposition to the proposal of another clergy who was purporting to be providing a better place for unaccompanied minor children. Both the local NPR station and a local TV station interviewed both of the ministers as the day of the Marietta City Council meeting to vote to approve or deny the zoning board’s decision approached. The New Sanctuary Movement of Atlanta was instrumental in helping us write a press release about the council meeting. Spanish language media covered the story as well.

As the day of the council meeting approached, Hannah Hafter of the UUSC led us in a phone conference and then provided us with sources and data to support our arguments against the detention center. We coordinated with our partners from the GLAHR, and an Emerson member put us in touch with a group of neighbors close to the proposed site who were also morally opposed to the child detention center.

The level of solidarity at the council meeting was palpable as the 100 or so of us in opposition sat with our signs and listened to Pastor Mitchell Bryant defend his plan. Rev. Bryant, an Atlanta-area minister, is also the managing partner for a company seeking to build the detention center. His half hour of time was followed by ours, in which Emerson members, neighbors, and the immigrant community spoke with eloquence and conviction against the morally reprehensible idea of locking up children separated from their families and/or held unnecessarily long by Department of Health and Human Services so ICE can check the immigration status of the child’s sponsor. We also learned that the pastor’s partner, whom he would not name, is actually the controversial Bethany Christian Services, whose reputation made us even more relieved that the proposal was defeated.

Rev. Bennett spoke to what all of us felt: the success of this solidarity has us ready to show up the next time or at the next place to resist cruel and inhumane immigration policy. UUSC’s training in expanded sanctuary tells us to resist unjust policies and systems that affect immigrants in our communities. Our experience embodied the “Love Resists” movement.

Photo Credit: Helen Hobson

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About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

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