Shaw High grad released from immigration center says good people are still there

'I have everything here,' Shaw High grad says after being released from immigration detention center

Jose Gonzalez Ochoa, a Shaw High School grad detained at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., was released from the facility July. He and his girlfriend Marta Lopez sat down recently for an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer.
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Jose Gonzalez Ochoa, a Shaw High School grad detained at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., was released from the facility July. He and his girlfriend Marta Lopez sat down recently for an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer.

Jose Gonzalez Ochoa has mixed emotions now that he’s released from the Stewart Detention Center and living back in the Columbus community.

On one hand, he relishes his freedom. On the other, he just can’t forget other undocumented immigrants that he left behind.

“It’s an amazing feeling just to know that you’re free and you could be with your family and your friends,” said the 20-year-old undocumented immigrant. “... But at the same time, I feel a little bit sad because of all the people that’s inside. I made a lot of friends over there, and I’m trying to do whatever I can to help them.”

Ochoa, a 2016 Shaw High School graduate, made the comments Wednesday during an interview with the Ledger- Enquirer. Sitting next to him was his girlfriend, Marta Lopez, who pushed for his release from the detention center in Lumpkin, Ga.

Ochoa, who crossed the U.S.-Mexican border with his father at 13 years old, had been detained at the facility since mid-April. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents transported Ochoa there after a Harris County sheriff’s deputy arrested him for speeding.

On June 20, an immigration judge released Ochoa on a $3,000 bond after he received government certification for a U visa reserved for victims of domestic violence. Ochoa’s attorney, Britt Thames, says Ochoa had been physically abused by his father who has since been deported back to Guatemala. Ochoa says his father has threatened to harm him if he returns.

During Wednesday’s interview, Ochoa described his time at the Stewart facility as a trying experience.

“They call it a detention center, but it’s jail for us because we’re locked up,” he said. “It was really difficult for me, and for all those people, because we were locked in a cell with 65 guys. It was really hard because we don’t have any privacy. We’re not allowed to go outside and whatever.

“... There were some people there for a really long time, years,” he said. “I met this one guy from Nepal. ... He was really nice, always giving me advice. ... He’s been there for one year and a half.

“... He didn’t cross the border, he didn’t break any laws,” he said. “He came straight to immigration to try to fix his visa status. He has never been in United States before.”

Ochoa said many men detained at the facility are married with children who are U.S. citizens. Some of the detainees are college students. Others have college degrees and were working professionals.

“It’s really hard because even when I told them I had to go, they were happy,” he said. “But the day that I left, some of them started crying. I felt really sad, really, really sad.”

Ochoa said he cried leaving the facility, but Lopez told him that it was an opportunity to help his new friends. And that inspired him.

“One of the things that helped me when I was inside was that so many people sent me letters and books,” he said. “I’m trying to do the same thing for theses guys. I mean, I don’t have so much money, but I’m spending a little bit of money to send books, Bibles, letters to them.”

He said he plans to visit the facility in the near future, but he’s waiting for work authorization documents that can be used as legal identification.

“The thing is they give a certain amount of U visas every year, and they’re still working on 2014, so I have to wait,” he said. “Meanwhile, they’re going to give me legal status.”

Gonzalez said he understands that some people are unsympathetic to the plight of undocumented immigrants. But he believes many of the people locked up at the facility are good people who would shouldn’t be there.

Some are young men, like him, who were brought into the country illegally as children.

“It was not exactly my decision to be here; I grew up with my grandparents,” he said. “My dad came over here when I was 2 years old, my mom came when I was 3. ... One day my dad just called and told me I was coming to the United States.

“... The next day, the thing that I see is that I have a stranger in my house, which was my dad. He just grabbed me and my little brother and told us we were coming to the United States,” he said. “He made me cross the desert with a lot of guys, and next thing I see I’m in the United States. At that time, I wanted to go back to my grandparents because they were my family from the time I was little.”

But over the years, Ochoa received love and support from teachers, clergy and friends, he said. He began to consider Columbus home, and now he has aspirations. He wants to go to college, become a dentist and build a life with Lopez, an immigrant from Spain who has a green card.

“Now, that I’ve been here all these years, I’ve already made a life,” he said. “... The only family that I have back in Guatemala are grandparents, and they are really, really old. ... The rest of my family is right here.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter