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.”
Judge Gee also found that facilities like Berks that hold children should not be “secured” in the same way that prisons are. Until recently Berks was not secured, meaning that technically, the women and children could have walked out of the center. However, according to Almiron, “if they were to leave the premises, they would be charged as fugitives and then be taken to federal prison.” Almiron was herself arrested for going up to the women during a protest and hugging them over a fence.
A facility that is operating without a license and slated for closure manages to retain legitimacy while those on the inside and outside are criminalized. In recent months authorities built a fence around Berks, qualifying it as a “secured” facility in direct violation of the Flores settlement and Gee’s ruling. Moreover, Almiron was told by some of the women that this week prison officials also locked the doors to the outside detainment area until further notice, citing danger from the summer heat.
The desperate mothers have been on a liquid diet for more than a week now as part of their hunger strike. It is not clear how much longer they can keep up or how the state or federal government will respond. Perhaps they will force-feed the women, as hunger-striking Guantanamo detainees were. Perhaps the women will “leave in a coffin,” as Almiron told me some women said they would do if they were not freed.
The Obama administration has purposely chosen to take up the practice of family detention. As I reported last year for Truthdig, undocumented families had been allowed to stay with relatives in the U.S. while their applications were reviewed and processed, but this president revived a Bush-era practice of family detention for no discernable reason other than to appear tough on immigration enforcement.
The incarceration of mothers and children at Berks and elsewhere is a stain on the U.S. Just as Europe’s poor treatment of Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees has been a measure of that continent’s immorality, the abuse of Central American women and children is a testament to American cruelty. The hunger strike is a last-ditch, desperate attempt by vulnerable women to call for justice and freedom for themselves and their children.