Women Held in Immigration Detention Publicly Ask for Release
Berks, Pennsylvania—In a statement released today, 30 mothers detained at the Berks Family Detention Center have asked to be released from their prolonged detention with their children. The open letter comes as the Berks facility appeals a decision by the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Human Services not to renew the facility’s license, which is set to expire on February 21.
“We came here seeking refuge. We came to this country to save our lives and the lives of our children,” wrote the women in today’s statement. The statement was jointly released by Human Rights First, the American Immigration Council, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The Berks family detention center is currently licensed by Pennsylvania as a “child residential facility” to hold up to 96 individuals. A Human Rights First report on the Berks facility found that children and their parents detained at the facility experience tremendous legal and health challenges, including detrimental effects on their mental health that may begin within days of incarceration. The families also encounter delays in their immigration proceedings, lack of access to legal counsel, and face obstacles and delays to release. Human Rights First’s findings and advocacy have been informed by two leading pediatricians, including the president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics who visited the Berks facility along with Human Rights First staff and expressed concern about the damaging impact of detention on children and their parents, including the possibility of long-term negative developmental consequences to children.
Human Rights First advocated for the state of Pennsylvania to revoke the Berks facility’s license, citing interviews with parents and children who have expressed anxiety and stress over their “incarceration” and “imprisonment.” Local Pennsylvania groups, pro bono lawyers, law schools, immigrant and refugee rights groups, as well as individual lawyers also raised awareness and concern about the detention facility and urged the state to revoke its license. The Berks County Residential Center is operated by Berks County and is one of the three family detention centers in the United States, along with the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas and the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas.
In a report, “Family Detention: Still Happening, Still Damaging,” Human Rights First found that the Obama Administration’s continuing operation of family detention facilities negatively impacts the mental and physical health of children and their parents. The report, based on visits to family detention facilities, finds that detention—even lasting for less than two weeks rather than months—is harmful to children and families.
A broad array of voices have called on the administration to end the practice of detaining families, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Bar Association, Catholic and Lutheran Bishops, and 178 Members of Congress and 35 Senators. Human Rights First continues to recommend that:
- The Obama Administration should end family detention once and for all.
- The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should refer all families directly into removal proceedings before an immigration judge rather than invoking expedited removal.
- DHS and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) should implement community-based alternative to detention programs and legal orientation presentations, and increase access to counsel.
“We have not committed any crime, and it is unjust that our children at such an early age are aware that they are incarcerated, in custody 24 hours a day, when at this time they should be participating in the school year and living a life with dignity, that all children deserve,” wrote the women in today’s letter.