Dozens of undocumented women being held with their children at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania are on a hunger strike that they say will culminate in their leaving the facility “alive or dead.” The mothers are essentially being held prisoner under an Obama administration plan to detain undocumented families while their papers for asylum are being processed. Their children range in age from 2 to 16.
A Philadelphia-based grass-roots organization called Juntos has been working to shut down Berks for nearly two years. It should not be such a difficult task, given that the facility is violating policy on many fronts. In an interview, Juntos Executive Director Erika Almiron told me that Berks was licensed as a “child residential facility” rather than a “detention center,” and that there is “no license that they can get in the state of Pennsylvania to fit what they want to do.” The detention center’s license expired in February, and Juntos and its allies pressured the Department of Human Services (akin to a child welfare department) to refuse renewal. But Berks County commissioners inexplicably appealed the decision. While the appeal is in process, the facility continues to operate and keep the women and children as prisoners.
Meanwhile, the entire program of imprisoning immigrant families is under question. A year ago, a federal judge in California, Dolly Gee, found the practice in violation of the settlement of a class action lawsuit 18 years ago, known as the Flores agreement, and ordered the release of families. Yet the thousands of women and children being held at three facilities, including Berks (the other two are in Texas), continues. But at a press event earlier this month, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson defended the ongoing detention in spite of Gee’s ruling, saying, “I think that we need to continue the practice so that we’re not just engaging in catch and release.”
But it was one particular statement by Johnson that so appalled the mothers being held at Berks that it prompted them to launch their hunger strike:
We’re complying with Judge [Dolly] Gee’s original order … what we’ve been doing is ensuring the average length of stay at these facilities is 20 days or less. And we’re meeting that standard.
In an open letter to Johnson, the imprisoned women say they have been held “from 270 days to 365 days” and that they “have decided to go on an indefinite hunger strike until we obtain our immediate freedom.” Almiron’s retort about Johnson: “To him, these women don’t exist.”
Conditions inside Berks are appalling. There is no janitorial staff to keep what is supposed to be a family-friendly facility clean. The imprisoned women are expected to clean their own prison for $1 a day. Reports surfaced of one 5-year-old being diagnosed with a dangerous bacterial disease called shigellosis that went untreated for weeks. Earlier this year, two mothers submitted a petition to the state calling for the site’s closure, citing “gross negligence and misconduct.” Recently a prison guard at Berks was convicted of raping a 19-year-old Honduran woman in view of a 7-year-old girl. The guard will probably serve less prison time than his victim’s term at Berks.
Children being held at Berks are suffering from depression. In their open letter, the mothers say, “On many occasions our children have thought about suicide because of the confinement and desperation that is caused by being here.” Additionally, “the teenagers say being here, life makes no sense, that they would like to break the window to jump out and end this nightmare.” Almiron, who has met some of the children, said, “they are clearly bringing trauma, and if anything we should be supplying them with massive support.” She added, “but we’re re-traumatizing these children.”
Most of the families in detention have fled horrific violence and insecurity in their home countries in Central America. Instead of being treated like refugees, they have found themselves caught in the dragnet of an administration that paints itself as a liberal alternative to harsh anti-immigrant conservatives. “What’s happening here is so inhumane and in violation of their human rights,” Almiron said, “I think the U.N. should be involved at this point.”