What’s next for men freed from ICE, dropped off in Columbus? Meet the Paz Amigos.

Daniel Pruteanu and Eselacha Elvis Ekokobe were free men.

In between bites of chicken at a Columbus Burger King, they shared the stories of how they came to America and wound up as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees at the Stewart Detention Center in nearby Lumpkin.

One came here in the late 90s from eastern Europe after his father won a Visa lottery. Decades later, the young man could have been deported. The other was a member of a secessionist group in Africa who fled his homeland seeking asylum.

After months of waiting, they were some of the select few who are released from ICE custody and not deported. Some are out on bond and parole and are still going through immigration court proceedings. Others are granted asylum outright or given green cards showing lawful permanent resident status.

Columbus is the closest major city to the detention center, and men who don’t have friends or family to travel to the facility are sent here to get on buses or airport shuttles bound for someplace else.

That’s where Paz Amigos comes in. The Columbus volunteer group meets the freed men, providing food, water and supplies they might need for their trip. They help the men, who often speak little or no English, get to their next destination.

These are the stories of the group and the two “amigos” who stayed briefly in Columbus before heading off last week.

Paz Amigos: What they do, how they do it

Less than an hour away from Lumpkin, Columbus is the first brief stop for the men who are released from Stewart Detention Center and aren’t picked up by family members or friends.

Among the first to greet them here are members of Paz Amigos.

Rita Ellis, an organizer and volunteer with Paz Amigos, said the group was formed in February 2019 and has grown to about a dozen members. The group is closely aligned with Indivisible Columbus, Ga., a progressive, non-partisan, issue-based group.

In November 2018, Ellis was working with El Refugio, a nonprofit which offers meals and no-cost lodging for families visiting immigrants detained at Stewart, when she learned about Susan Krysak, a Columbus woman who had been helping the men who were released and ended up here for five years.

It was cold and rainy at the time and many of the men being released had been picked up six months prior at the southwestern border in shorts and a t-shirt. Ellis collected coats and other supplies from friends.

“What (Krysak) was doing was so kind and so generous,” Ellis said. “I really felt compelled to help her.”

The group grew from that desire. Members take turns being on-call Monday through Friday to help the men that are released.

“The numbers had increased steadily,” she said of the men who end up in Columbus.

At first, the men were dropped off at Columbus’ Greyhound bus station or Groome Transportation, an airport shuttle service that takes passengers to the Atlanta airport, once they were released from the Stewart Detention Center.

They were often left there through the night.

“We used to have to drive through the Greyhound (station) anywhere from 8 p.m. until midnight and just look for men just sitting there with their yellow envelopes,” she said.

Now, the men are primarily dropped off at Groome. Many of the men speak no English and have no money, and they need help getting to their family or friends in other parts of the country.

Like Pruteanu and Ekokobe, they were hungry at the time of release. Group members take the men a snack and water. They also get a backpack filled with toiletries, a blanket and other things they need. The group will take men to dinner if there’s time.

If their plane or bus ride isn’t until the next day, the members will open their homes to the men or buy them a hotel room. The men’s family members pay for the travel tickets, but Paz Amigos members make sure the men get on the proper bus to their destination or their shuttle to the Atlanta airport. All of their efforts are funded through donations.

The group also follows up to make sure the men make it to their destination safely. Many of the group members stay in touch with the men they’ve helped, Ellis said.

“It’s a very joyous, joyous thing,” she said. “This is the kindness that we owe them at a minimum.”

Since its formation, the group has helped men from around the world get to their friends or families in the United States — men like Pruteanu and Ekokobe.

How Daniel Pruteanu got to Stewart

Pruteanu, 25, arrived in Columbus with most of his belongings in a brown paper bag. He was released July 1 on cancellation of removal because he is a permanent resident and it was his first offense, he said.

“I’m lucky,” he said. “I have an extra leg to stand on (compared to) 99% of the people there with my status.”

He moved to the United States in the late 1990s from Romania after his father won a Visa lottery. Eleven of his 13 family members came over during that time.

Pruteanu spent four months at Stewart after a probation violation. He was convicted on a drug possession charge in 2018.

“The new officer came to my house but I was in Savannah working,” he said. “She left the paper there saying there was a warrant out for my arrest.”

Before Pruteanu was transferred to Stewart, he was jailed for two weeks at the Gwinnett County jail.

Gwinnett County participates in the 287(g) program which deputizes state and local officials to enforce federal immigration law. Deputies check the immigration status of arrestees and hold them for federal authorities when appropriate, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

Pruteanu was told his conviction was an aggravated felony which falls within a category of offenses that could have particularly harsh immigration consequences for noncitizens. Some could lead to deportation, according to the American Immigration Council.

“My first and only conviction and first and only arrest,” he said. “My probation officer was even surprised when ICE came and took me.”

How Eselacha Elvis Ekokobe ended up in Stewart

Ekokobe, 40, spent five and a half months in ICE custody. His final three months were spent at the Stewart Detention Center. He was granted asylum June 28 and freed July 1.

Born in Cameroon, he was a member of the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), a self-described non-violent group pushing for the English-speaking region to secede from the majority French-speaking nation. The Cameroonian government has outlawed the group.

In the past two years, protests in the country have turned deadly as various rebel groups and the government’s security forces clash, reports Africa Renewal, a United Nations produced magazine, in their December 2018-March 2019 issue.

“The French Cameroon is trying to marginalize the English part, which is the minority,” he said. “They are trying to marginalize them by not providing enough for them. No employment for them. No development. Our region is underdeveloped.”

Ekokobe joined the group in September 2013.

He fled the country with his wife in October 2018. They attempted to seek asylum by entering the United States from a point of entry near Tijuana, Mexico.

They were detained there for a week in what he described as “harsh conditions,” with more than 20 other people being held in one room.

“We were sleeping on … bare floors with papers as blankets,” he said. “They gave us food once or twice a day.”

One night, Ekokobe was called from the room and told to walk. He was then ordered to face the wall and put his hands behind his back.

“They started chaining me,” he said. “I said ‘What about my wife?’ They said, ‘Anything you say here can be used against you in a court of law.’ So, I was silent.”

He was taken to a detention center in Arizona for a day, and was then held at an ICE detention center in Mississippi. He was there for a month and a half, and he was fed poorly, he said.

“They just tried to give you something to sustain life,” he said. “(I) almost died there because of hunger.”

Ekokobe was finally sent to the Stewart Detention Center where he’d stay for about three months.

“As compared to the other camps, Stewart was a little bit better,” Ekokobe said.

Life inside Stewart and freedom

Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin is an immigration center with higher-than-average deportation rates and a documented history of alleged human and civil rights abuses.

In 2016, the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. justice system, called Stewart’s adjoining immigration court “America’s toughest,” as only 2% of the men facing deportation here won their cases in the 2015 fiscal year, and just 5% of seekers were granted asylum. In 2018, Stewart’s court still granted asylum to few seekers — less than the country’s median grant rate of 11%, according to Department of Justice statistics.

Allegations about the treatment of detainees at Stewart and another Georgia facility, Irwin, have received international attention. A 2017 report published by Penn State Law’s Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic documents conditions of the facilities through interviews with immigrants and the attorneys who represent them.

The report alleges several issues at Stewart, including poor housing conditions, understaffed medical units, disciplinary segregation and food with “foreign objects, such as hair, plastic, bugs, rocks, a tooth, and mice.”

The Department of Justice and ICE officials did not respond to requests about Stewart’s current population, additional immigration court stats and other various details about the detention center and its court.

Pruteanu said he was held in the high-security portion of the detention center while Ekokobe was held in low security.

A typical day at Stewart for Pruteanu started at 4 a.m. when breakfast was served. Then, he said, men were sent to their rooms at 7 a.m. for a head count. Lunch is served at about 10:30 a.m. Then comes another headcount. Dinner is served at 5:30 p.m.

He said his experience as an inmate at the county jail was worse than his time at Stewart.

“You’re in (your room) less than the county jail,” Pruteanu said. “I was lucky because I had good custodial officers … They treated us like people.”

Many of the men held at Stewart were likely to be deported, Pruteanu said.

“Most of them have no chance at relief from removal whatsoever ... (some of them) have families here — children here who are citizens and wives here that are citizens and they still get denied and they still get deported,” he said.

Pruteanu and Ekokobe, however, were released and don’t have to go back to court. An immigration judge prevented Pruteanu’s deportation. Ekokobe was granted asylum.

They made the trip from Lumpkin to Columbus on July 1 and arrived at Groome transportation that evening.

Ellis and other Paz Amigos members arrived not long after Ekokobe, Pruteanu and another man who had been released from ICE detention. She gave the men a granola bar for a snack and bottled water. Not long after, they began to discuss logistics to make sure the men knew where they were going and that they had the necessary tickets.

The men ate Burger King before leaving Columbus.

Where to next?

The free men must now work to put their lives back together. Pruteanu returns to a familiar place. Ekokobe is in a new place.

Pruteanu took a bus back home to the Atlanta area. His sister was set to pick him up. Most of his family still lives there, including his elderly parents.

While his family knew he was free, his girlfriend did not. He planned on surprising her. He’ll soon begin looking for work.

Pruteanu has to be careful or he could end up in the same situation again, he said.

“(I’ll) just continue where I left off hopefully,” he said.

Ekokobe was heading to Maryland by bus to find his wife. She was released from an ICE detention center in Washington state May 24. He isn’t sure how she ended up there. Their baby daughter is still in Cameroon with his wife’s family.

Paz Amigos will continue to help men like Pruteanu and Ekokobe who are released from Stewart and need help getting to their next place.

“Our job is to greet them with kindness and to welcome them to America,” she said. “Because their first taste of America has been in prison. That’s not really what America is all about.”

Note: If you would like to donate or volunteer, contact the group at pazamigos19@gmail.com. They do not have a website and are working to become a nonprofit.

Nick Wooten is the Southern Trends and Culture reporter for McClatchy’s South region. He is based in Columbus, Georgia at the Ledger-Enquirer but his work also appears in The (Macon) Telegraph and The Sun Herald in Biloxi.Before joining McClatchy, he worked for The (Shreveport La.) Times covering city government and investigations. He is a graduate of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.