COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — Rita Ellis got the call around 1:30 on a recent afternoon.

Four men were being released from the Stewart Detention Center and were due to arrive in Columbus in less than an hour. The call was expected but came earlier than usual. A mass text went out, and the organizing and scrambling began.

Ellis and five other volunteers loaded their cars with newly-stocked supply backpacks and laptops to buy tickets for the men’s next stop. One helper stopped at a Burger King just down the road to pick up chicken sandwiches. Still warm in the foil, the released men would soon sit outside on benches and eat, talking between bites. It wouldn’t be long before the Groome shuttle station filled with the sounds of their hurried conversations.

It’s a phone call Ellis says she has received more often in 2021. Only four months into the year, she and other volunteers at the Columbus-based Paz Amigos have helped more men released from federal immigration custody get to their family and friends in other parts of the country than the group did in all of 2020. If the pace continues, it will be the nonprofit’s busiest year since its formation.

The past year hasn’t come without its challenges. The group dealt with changing logistics and new limitations imposed by COVID-19. But now, most of the volunteers are fully vaccinated and able to help.

Court orders and a change in presidential administration seem to have increased the flow of detainees freed from custody, setting up a busy year for groups like Paz Amigos.

“We’ve never experienced anything like this,” Ellis said. “Since January, it’s been incredible.”

WHO ARE THE PAZ AMIGOS?

Paz Amigos traces its origins to Columbus resident Susan Krysak. She helped the released men dropped off in the city for several years by doing things like giving them coats in winter months to keep them warm. Her efforts eventually inspired Ellis to form Paz Amigos, or “Peace Friends,” in early 2019.

Some detainees have loved ones who travel to Lumpkin to pick them up. But often the men (and women, too, during the pandemic) who are released but not deported by ICE often end up in Columbus.

Some are out on bond and parole and are still going through immigration court. They must continue to appear at future proceedings. Others are granted asylum outright or given green cards showing lawful permanent resident status.

Paz Amigos has developed a relationship with Stewart. Staff at the detention center call Ellis or other members of the organization to let them know how many people are coming to Columbus and their estimated time of arrival.

Volunteers provide those who are newly released with a meal and supplies. The families or other nonprofits fund travel expenses, but Paz Amigos helps book the trips. They help the men, or amigos as the group calls them, find accommodations for the night if they are scheduled to leave the next day.

In 2019, the group assisted 562 amigos. That number dropped slightly to 363 in 2020 as only two or three volunteers were able to assist when the pandemic took hold. Only four months into the year, 459 people have received help through Paz Amigos.

2020 AND THE START OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

A majority of the helpers fell into high-risk health categories, so Zoom videoconferencing became crucial for planning. But those who could help in person took up the reins during the Spring of 2020.

COVID-19 was and remains an issue at the Stewart Detention Center. As of April 11, 493 detainees have tested positive for the virus and four COVID-19 deaths have been confirmed. Both are the largest totals for any ICE facility in the country.

Monica Whatley, one of the volunteers who saw an increased role during the early days of the pandemic, said plastic gloves and double masking became norms.

“We were really kind of pioneering a new territory that no one had ever experienced before,” Whatley said. “We had some kind of learning curves along the way (like) figuring out how to share a phone and how to maintain adequate social distance while talking to someone on the phone together in the middle of a busy bus station.”

For a time, Greyhound buses and Groome shuttles weren’t leaving Columbus. Members of Paz Amigos successfully lobbied CoreCivic, the group that operates the detention center on ICE’s behalf, to bypass the city and head straight for Atlanta. There were even a few crisis days when Whatley drove the men and women to Atlanta herself.

For those with trips scheduled for the following day, Paz Amigos struck deals with two local hotels, giving the men their own place for the night. In pre-pandemic times, volunteers would have opened their homes to the recently released immigrants.

“It’s very rewarding. It’s very humbling. It’s also very angering that I’m the one that’s the first person receiving them when they get out,” Whatley said of the work. “It shouldn’t be like this. They should be coming home to the arms of their loved ones.”

THE CHANGES TO ICE’S OPERATIONS

Federal court orders, a new presidential administration and fewer border crossings in mid-2020 are contributing to the higher number of released detainees and the drop in detainee population, according to federal reports, Ellis and others who work with immigrants confined at Stewart.

In April 2020, a federal judge ordered ICE to quickly identify and release all people in its custody at increased risk for COVID-19. Compelling reasons were required to keep those detainees in custody, and the agency had to prove it could follow proper public health protocols. Ellis said she noticed that releases started to pick up in November 2020.

Marty Rosenbluth, a Lumpkin, Georgia, immigration lawyer, said another factor is the Biden Administration’s directive to review all cases to see who could be released and monitored instead of being held in detention centers.

In February, Tae Johnson, the Acting Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, issued guidance to agency employees establishing custody and enforcement guidelines influenced by several factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic. As of March, detainees and their representatives who believe they don’t meet ICE’s enforcement policies can request a case review.

However, 160 immigrant rights and legal services organizations said the case review process has been ”woefully inadequate because it channels detained immigrants’ requests for release to biased ICE field office directors who prefer to use their authority to keep people detained,” according to a statement from the National Immigrant Justice Center.

“Anyone who is not a very clear danger to the community is being released either pending their hearing or ICE is reviewing their cases and decided whether or not to drop their cases,” Rosenbluth said.

Border crossings dropped in mid-2020, and the number of overall detainees dropped to 16,377, according to the Office of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman’s report to Congress.

But crossing numbers are increasing once more. In March 2021, border agents arrested 171,000 migrants attempting to illegally cross the southern border, a 15-year monthly high, the Wall Street Journal reports.

WHAT’S NEXT?

National changes have resulted in a drop in the Stewart Detention Center’s population, too. Data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement shows the average daily population during the 2019 fiscal year was just over 1,900.

By 2021, that number fell to just over 700. When Paz Amigos spoke with staff at Stewart in early April, the tally was down to 293 detainees, Ellis said.

“We can’t say they are winding down, but their numbers have greatly decreased,” she said. “That is a huge drop.”

A majority of the released detainees helped by Paz Amigos came in March, a total of 219 or about seven men per day. April has proven to be a little slower, 84 through the first 12 days. Among the most recent were the four men the Amigos helped in Columbus last week.

They arrived at the Groome shuttle station in the rain, just after 2 p.m. on April 9. It was a smaller group than the volunteers have become accustomed to seeing.

The men hailed from Bangladesh, Cameroon, Cuba and Eritrea. They wore black cloth or blue surgical face masks, but they didn’t have shoelaces or belts when they got to Columbus. Those were taken when they first entered Stewart.

Dan Ginter, one of the volunteers, began to pass out supplies and treats for the long trip to somewhere else.

“We got personal hygiene, t-shirts, underwear and socks in there,” the 72-year-old said, unzipping one of the filled backpacks. “They usually take theirs off and throw it away. The bag allows them to put their things and paperwork in there.”

Then began the flurry of phone calls and the clacking of computer keys as the volunteers worked to book travel tickets for the men. Those who couldn’t speak English relied on Spanish-speaking volunteers to translate and communicate for them. Those who could did not want to speak or were still in the middle of immigration court proceedings and worried how talking with a journalist might affect their case moving forward.

“It’s a traumatizing experience,” said Michelle Fierro, a volunteer and translator. “These are people who are missing important milestones of their lives and their families, you know. Even if you speak the language, you’re a human being that is decompressing from all of this trauma, and now, you don’t know what to do or where to go. Most of them have never lived in the United States.”

None of the four men had spent any time in the U.S, Ellis said. They are asylum seekers, fleeing their homeland over past persecutions or fears of mistreatment tied to some part of their identity — race, religion, political opinion, nationality or membership in a certain social group. Their entire time in America had been spent in federal immigration custody.

Before 3:00 p.m., the tickets are all booked. Three of the men were heading to Texas and the fourth was heading to New York where friends or family would have to find them. Their first stop was Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.

Another group like Paz, Casa Alterna, would greet the men at the Atlanta airport to ensure they made their flights.

Before they boarded the van, the men posed with volunteers for selfies to commemorate their release. The men wave through the darkened windows as they settle into their seats.

Some were still going through court proceedings. Their fates were undetermined, and their American journeys were just beginning.