Long-Term Detention of Mothers and Children in Pennsylvania

On August 8, 2016, 22 mothers at the Berks County Residential Center launched a hunger strike to protest their long-term detention and the harm it has inflicted on their children. Berks is one of three facilities that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses to detain children with their parents.

In response to the increasing numbers of women and children requesting asylum at the southern border in the summer of 2014, the U.S. government massively increased so-called family detention. Rather than adopting a refugee protection and child protection approach, the Obama Administration implemented an “aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border crossers.”1

That approach has been deeply criticized by a wide array of voices, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Bar Association, 178 Representatives of the House and 35 Senators, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and numerous faith groups.

Detention, even for a short time, hurts children’s long-term health and development. Aside from the devastating effect on families, former government officials—among many others—say deterrence has been ineffective, as evidenced by the continued arrival of women and children seeking protection from the violence and persecution plaguing Central America.

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services announced in an October 22, 2015 letter that it would not renew a license to operate the Berks County Residential Center as a child residential facility because it was, in fact, operating “for the detention of immigrant families, including adults.”3 The license expired on February 21, 2016, and an appeal filed by Berks County is pending before an administrative agency. The facility continues to operate and detain approximately 80 asylum- seeking mothers and children.

On July 25, 2016, Human Rights First visited Berks with a delegation of mental health and legal professionals and met with officials from ICE, the facility director, facility medical staff, and most of the detained mothers. The visit followed over a year of working closely with a network of lawyers, nonprofit legal organizations, community-based organizations, pro bono law firms, and an on-the-ground pro bono legal services coordinator who visits the families each week.

Most families at Berks have been there for upwards of six months. This prolonged detention has had serious negative consequences for children, including suicidal gestures and ideation, anxiety, sleeplessness, behavioral regressions, and lack of appetite. Moreover, the facility has failed to provide adequate health and mental health care to children and their mothers, has been accused of institutional neglect, and employs staff members who make children feel unsafe.

Human Rights First reaffirms many of the recommendations in our 2015 report, Family Detention in Berks County, Pennsylvania. First, the Obama Administration should reverse its misguided policy of detaining asylum-seeking mothers and children and instead implement a refugee protection approach. Second, now that the operating license has been revoked, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services should order the Berks County Residential Center to cease operations and issue emergency removal orders for the families detained there.

Issue Brief

Published on August 19, 2016


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