Citing unfair treatment, neglect, and abuse, 10 mothers are refusing to work inside Berks Family Residential Center until they and their children are released and the facility is shut down.
Community organizers, faith leaders, advocates and individuals gathered on June 11 to announce their support for the detained mothers at Berks.
“We have been fighting for the last couple of months to highlight the human rights abuses of the women who are currently detained. The camp houses around 100 women and children with the anticipation of growing into a larger facility,” said Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos. “Today marks the fourth day of the worker strike of nine women on the inside, who launched the strike specifically because they demand release and they also see the value of shutting down this detention center.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) established the Berks Family Residential Facility in March 2001. Designed as a non-secure residential facility to accommodate the unique needs of undocumented children and their families, it became the first of its kind in the U.S. dedicated to keeping families and children together while undergoing immigration proceedings.
According to Juntos, the center, located in Leesport (PA), has avoided scrutiny directed in recent weeks at two other facilities in Texas, but local advocates and detained families have denounced similar patterns of abuse and prolonged detention.
Berks is one of three family detention centers. The other two are located in Texas — one in Dilley (set to become the largest immigrant center in the country) and the other in Karnes City.
“The abuses in Berks are not isolated. We began collaborating with organizers from Texas to make sure our struggles in different states are connected,” said Fernanda Marroquin, of Migrant Power Movement
Marroquin had the opportunity to visit Berks Center a few weeks ago and talk about some of the living conditions described by the detained mothers. “A child vomited blood for about four days without receiving medical attention, kids are constantly getting sick and not receiving medical care,” she said. “Children are throwing up on the hallways, there is inadequate education and nutrition.”
According to Marroquin, detained mothers are forced to clean the prison for $1 a day or, in some cases, for no pay at all. “Since the strike was launched guards have begun to add the names of children, some as young as 13, to the list of work assignments. Some of the families have been held for more than a year and face abusive treatment from guards and staff on a daily basis.”
In April 17 mothers sent a letter to ICE demanding that all the families at Berks be released, but never received a response. Organizers said the strike was due to that lack of response.
Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez released a statement in solidarity with the detained mothers, and called upon elected officials to do everything in their power to permanently close down the center.
“It is unconscionable that our state of Pennsylvania is currently operating a county facility that practices family detention,” Quiñones said. “This continued incarceration stands against everything this great country and state represents.”
Caitlin Barry is an attorney representing a young mother and her 6-year-old daughter who have been incarcerated for 11 months at Berks Center. “They came to the United States to escape a dangerous situation in their home country. We support our client in her daugther in fighting to close the Berks facility, primarily because prison is not safe for anyone, and that includes these mothers and children.”
According to AP, some 130 House Democrats and 33 senators have called on the government to halt family detention, while a federal judge in California has tentatively ruled that the policy violates parts of an 18-year-old court settlement that says immigrant children cannot be held in secure facilities.
Barry also believes Berks Center is being operated under the violation of the 1997 federal settlement, that guarantees migrant children “safe and appropriate” placement during federal custody and a fair opportunity for release on bond or recognizance pending proceedings to determine whether they are lawfully entitled to the be in the U.S.
Almirón said there is very little communication with the detained women and that they are relying on different attorneys for inside information. “We are going to Berks Center next week, the following steps of the coalition is to do a vigil outside and to keep on pressuring for the closing. We anticipate to have an update when we hear from the attorneys.”