Human Rights First Tours Berks Family Detention Facility
Leesport, Pennsylvania—Following a tour today of the Berks County family detention facility in Leesport, Pennsylvania, Human Rights First calls on the Obama Administration to end its policy of detaining women and children fleeing violence and persecution in Central America. The Berks detention center holds 89 parents and children, and has plans to double its capacity this summer.
“It is tragic to witness mothers and young children unnecessarily locked up in detention—in some cases, for more than a year,” said Human Rights First’s Olga Byrne, who participated in today’s tour of the detention facility along with representatives of other groups. “The U.S. government’s policy of detaining mothers and children is unjust, cruel, and unnecessary. It does damage to both the families who are seeking U.S. protection and to the integrity of our asylum system, which should be based on fairness and due process.”
Despite the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) announcement last month that it will increase oversight of family detention and review cases of families that have been detained longer than 90 days, Human Rights First met with mothers who have been held at Berks with their children since last summer. All are seeking protection in the United States as refugees and many have close family in the United States with whom thy could reunite. One family’s final hearing before an immigration judge was held three months ago, but they remain in detention because the judge who heard their case went on leave and the responsibility to issue the decision has apparently been bouncing between the desks of various federal employees. Byrne observes, “Such flagrantly careless treatment of a family’s wellbeing and future is unacceptable.”
At a daily cost of $343 per person, the Department of Homeland Security will spend an estimated $463 million this year if it fulfills its promise of maintaining 3,700 detention beds for families. This amount is in addition to the roughly $2 billion already spent on immigration detention each year.
By contrast, community-based support programs and other alternative measures that are proven to secure appearance for immigration hearings and deportation are much more fiscally prudent, costing only 17 cents to $17 per person a day. These effective and cost-efficient programs enjoy support across the political spectrum.
As detailed in a report issued by Human Rights First last week, detention creates many obstacles for asylum-seeking families, including lack of access to counsel and difficulties gathering evidentiary documents for their cases, in addition to the negative mental health effects children and their mothers experience as a result of confinement. As detailed in the report’s recommendations, rather than continuing to detain women and children fleeing violence and persecution, the Obama Administration should:
- End the detention of families and children;
- End prolonged immigration detention and the use of prohibitively high bonds;
- Support the use of alternatives to detention when additional support is needed to assure appearance, such as community-based case management programs, which are more humane and cost-effective;
- Support staffing for the immigration courts and asylum office, as well as legal counsel for asylum seekers and other immigration detainees; and
- Prevent improper denials of access to asylum.
“Speaking with the brave mothers who have been detained at Berks now for over a year was a disheartening and somber experience,” said Byrne. “The Obama Administration’s policy of locking up parents and children who are fleeing persecution is highly misguided. The administration needs to immediately put a stop to this policy.”