Families Picked Up in Raids Now Languishing at Berks Family Detention Facility in Pennsylvania
In a January 27, 2016 letter to the operators of the Berks County Residential Center, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services confirmed its decision not to renew the facility’s license. Come February 21, the facility will officially be without a license, yet Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has not revealed any plans to release families and close the facility.
Since late October 2015, ICE has used the Berks facility mainly to detain mothers and children previously held in the family detention centers in south Texas. Human Rights First and other groups have raised serious concerns with ICE about the due process problems inherent in these sudden transfers, as well as the trauma they cause children and their mothers.
In addition to the families transferred from Texas, there are five families at the Berks facility who were apprehended by ICE in the early January raids in Georgia and Texas. The legality and forceful nature of this operation by ICE has been questioned by Human Rights First and others, including in a recent report, Families in Fear, by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which found that the raids appear to have been conducted without warrants.
Human Rights First spoke with two of the families at the Berks facility apprehended during the recent raids. One mother from Honduras fled her country after years of domestic abuse. She reported that ICE officials did not identify themselves when they came to her house and that they operated under the false pretense of searching for a criminal allegedly on the loose to gain access to her home. She also told us that when she requested to contact her attorney, they refused to allow her access to a phone. She and her children were forced into a car and taken to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.
Fortunately, the CARA Pro Bono Project obtained a stay of removal for the family. After spending about 15 days detained at Dilley, the family were transferred in the middle of the night to Berks without any explanation or forewarning from ICE. The mother told us that her sons repeatedly asked where they were going and that she could not summon the courage to tell them her worst fear: that they were being deported back to Honduras.
The five “raid” families remain at Berks with stays of removal granted by the Board of Immigration Appeals, as they await the acceptance of their appeals. All have family members or close contacts in the local communities that they were torn from. Many of them had children enrolled in school. Instead of continuing their education, these children are held captive in a detention center in rural Pennsylvania.
In a recent report on family detention, we cited a growing body of research showing that even short periods of detention can hurt the health and development of children, and urged the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE to end this misguided policy of detaining families once and for all.
The Berks facility will soon be unlicensed and therefore in clear violation of the Flores Settlement Agreement—the key legal instrument concerning the detention, release, and care of minors in immigration custody. DHS should immediately close the Berks facility and release the families detained there so that they can seek asylum outside of detention.