Biden Administration Detains Women Seeking Safety and Separates Them From Their Families
Conversations with Women Incarcerated at ICE Berks Detention Center
In September 2021, the Biden administration signed a new contract to reopen the Berks County Residential Center (“Berks Detention Center” or “Berks”) in Reading, Pennsylvania in order to detain asylum seekers and other immigrant adult women. Just months prior, the Department of Homeland Security’s (“DHS”) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) had, in a welcome move, stopped using Berks Detention Center to incarcerate minor immigrant children with their parents.
After the Biden administration signed a new contract in September with the operator of the detention center, Berks County, the facility reopened in January 2022. Human and immigrant rights organizations and members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation strongly opposed the move to reopen Berks, particularly given the detention center’s long history of human rights abuses, medical neglect, and sexual assault. Since January, the U.S. government has transferred hundreds of women who sought refuge in the United States at the southern border to Berks. In August 2022, the government transferred another approximately 100 women from DHS border custody to the detention center and subsequently transferred approximately another 160 women to Berks in fall 2022. As of the date of publication of this factsheet, there are 38 women detained at Berks.
Recent media reports indicate that DHS will terminate its contract with Berks County on January 31, 2023, a critical step that would end the administration’s cruel and unnecessary incarceration of asylum seekers and migrants at the facility. The decision comes after years of relentless advocacy and community organizing efforts supporting the families and women in the facility who bravely disclosed the abuses they endured. Researchers from Human Rights First and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) conducted a human rights monitoring visit to the detention center in September 2022 and spoke with women incarcerated at the facility, including teenagers separated at the border from parents, mothers separated from adult children, and women separated from spouses and other family members. The women interviewed were notified of these visits beforehand and were given an opportunity to volunteer to speak with Human Rights First and PHR. The interviews were conducted in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian and ranged from approximately 30 minutes to one hour in length.
27 women were interviewed, some in-person at the Berks Detention Center and others later by phone. Pseudonyms have been used throughout to protect their identities. Their stories reflect DHS’s cruel treatment of these women and underscore the inhumane decision by the Biden administration to incarcerate asylum seekers requesting protection in the United States, when it has the legal authority to release them as they pursue their asylum claims. Interviews with women detained at the Berks Detention Center about the harms they suffered confirm that the administration must permanently close the facility as well as stop incarcerating asylum seekers and migrants in other detention centers.
Among those incarcerated at Berks at the time of the visit were women—some as young as 18 years old—from Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Eritrea, Nicaragua, Peru, Russia, Turkey, and other countries. In their countries of origin, some of the women had suffered political persecution by government officials, gender-based violence, anti-LGBTQ attacks, and religious-based attacks. Many of the women undertook dangerous journeys to escape persecution to exercise their legal right to seek asylum.
Some of the women interviewed had been detained for more than four months at the time of the visit, despite President Biden’s campaign promise to end prolonged detention. For example, a woman granted asylum due to political persecution in Nicaragua was detained for over six months before ICE finally released her after her asylum request was granted.
The Biden administration has taken steps to expand immigration detention despite campaign promises to end prolonged detention, reinvest in case management programs, and eliminate for-profit detention facilities. In addition to reopening Berks to incarcerate adult immigrant women, DHS has entered into contracts to open and expand private detention facilities. As of November 2022, there are more than twice as many asylum seekers and immigrants incarcerated in the United States compared to when President Biden took office. Human Rights First and PHR’s full recommendations can be found at the end of this factsheet.