Ahead of Immigration Detention License Expiration, Human Rights First Releases Letters from Detained Mothers
New York City— As the license of the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania is set to expire this weekend, Human Rights First today renewed calls on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to end the detention of individuals and families at the facility. In anticipation of Sunday’s license expiration, Human Rights First released a new summary of communications sent to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by some of the women detained at the facility who expressed concerns regarding the physical and mental wellbeing of their children, along with the responses they received from ICE officials who showed little regard for these concerns.
“The communications released today paint a stark picture of the conditions at Berks and the degree to which ICE officials have neglected to take seriously the health and wellbeing of children and parents in their custody,” said Human Rights First’s Olga Byrne, who has visited the facility numerous times during the past year. “We know that detention—even for short periods of time—can have severely negative impacts on children’s health and development. The fact that ICE officials seem unconcerned with this only reinforces the degree to which they are unfit to house and provide services to women and their children.”
In the summer of 2014, the Obama Administration announced their intention to detain large numbers of asylum-seeking families from Central America as part of a deterrence-based strategy to stop other children and families from migrating to the United States. The Berks facility, which has been in operation for 15 years, is one of three family immigration detention centers where the U.S. government detains asylum-seeking families.
The Berks County facility has been licensed by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services as a child residential facility for dependent and delinquent children. However, the license is due to expire on February 21, 2016 and will not be renewed. In his October 2015 letter to the Berks facility, the Pennsylvania Secretary of Human Services, Ted Dallas, stated that “Pennsylvania law makes no provision for [PA] DHS to license family residential facilities.” The facility has appealed the decision to not renew its license to the Bureau of Hearings Appeals—an administrative body within Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services.
In one of the complaints released today, a woman detained at Berks with her child wrote, “My daughter has been having diarrhea for about three weeks now and we went to see a doctor but they did not give us any medication not even serum. With every passing day her behavior is getting worse and the psychologist just tells me to be patient. I need you to give me adequate medication and that you give me the opportunity to take my case outside of here.” In response, an ICE agent simply told her to visit the medical department and, “You may disolve [sic] your case at any time and return to your country.”
The types of health and behavioral concerns raised by the mothers at Berks are not uncommon to children held in immigration detention. Human Rights First, along with pediatricians and a social worker, spoke with families at Berks in August 2015 and released a report of their findings titled, “Family Detention: Still Happening, Still Damaging.” The parents—including those who have been detained for two or three weeks—related symptoms of their children‘s behavioral regressions, depression, anxiety, and increased aggression toward both parents and other children.