ATLANTA (AP) — A year ago, Pedro Guzman was inside a federal detention center in southwest Georgia as his wife, mother-in-law and young son joined an annual vigil at the gate. This year he was outside, participating in the rally Friday, and said it felt amazing.
Guzman, a Guatemalan native who was brought to the U.S. when he was 8, spent 18 months in the Stewart Detention Facility in southwest Georgia before his release six months ago. He's now a legal permanent resident and was happy this year to be on the other side of the gates.
"It just feels really amazing to be here," he said. "I'm just blessed to be out, but a lot of people are still in there."
It was the fifth annual vigil organized by Georgia Detention Watch, a coalition of civil liberties and immigrant rights groups. The vigil focused on the impact of detention on the families of detainees, especially the children. Organizers also want to protest the remote location of many immigration detention centers, far away from advocates and lawyers, said Azadeh Shahshahani of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.
"But we still go there frequently, and once a year we have this convergence to show CCA and ICE that we will still come there, no matter how far it is, and also to show our support for the immigrants," she said. Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, is a private company that runs the detention center for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
"It is time to close this for-profit detention center and end the mandatory detention of immigrants," Flores-Maisonet said.
About 270 people attended the vigil, said Anton Flores-Maisonet, one of the event's organizers. Following the vigil, one man decided to commit an act of civil disobedience, crossing under the line of yellow tape that was stretched across the entrance to the detention center property, where he was arrested, Flores-Maisonet said.
As one of eight people arrested during last year's vigil, Flores-Maisonet walked up to the line with the man and gave him a hug in solidarity but did not cross the line himself, he said. After the vigil was over and nearly everyone had left, a sheriff's deputy walked up to Flores-Maisonet, who had stayed behind to give interviews, and said that he had crossed the line and was under arrest, Flores-Maisonet said by phone from the sheriff's office.
"Video tape will show I never crossed the line," he said. "It's suspect that they waited to arrest me until after people were gone and there were no witnesses."
The Associated Press has not seen video of the incident. A woman who answered the phone at the Stewart County Sheriff's Office said she couldn't immediately provide information but would be able to later in the day.
A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency didn't have any comment on Friday's vigil.
Guzman said the six months since his release from Stewart have passed quickly.
"It's unbelievable how fast time moves when you're not behind bars," he said.
He's returned to Durham, N.C., where he lives with his U.S. citizen wife, Emily, and their 5-year-old son. He's been working as a contractor and he and Emily are expecting a daughter in March, he said.