Refugees in Pennsylvania shouldn’t suffer more abuse when they seek political asylum

Illustration by Jameela Wahlgren

Illustration by Jameela Wahlgren

End Family Incarceration

by Erika Almiron

When I was taken into custody at Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania—for hugging women who had been unlawfully detained there for months with their children—I couldn’t believe it. 

As the executive director of Juntos, a community-led, Latino immigrant organization fighting for our human rights, I had spent over a year—working with hundreds of people—trying to close the center, and I was there that day because we believed these families would be set free. 

We’d been monitoring a growing list of human rights abuses against the refugee families who are detained there as they await review of their cases for political asylum. Many are fleeing from Central American countries that have been economically and socially destabilized due to years of failed U.S. interventions and global corruption. 

There are various reports and testimony showing the clear state of crisis inside the center, which had been operating with an unlawful license for years. Our work resulted in revocation of its license, which should have resulted in the immediate release of the families. But, on that same day of my arrest, Berks County commissioners filed an appeal to continue operating, and now the women and their families remain incarcerated in deplorable conditions.  

After my arrest there, the facility erected a fence to ensure the women can’t leave: The center has been operating unlawfully since it was open, yet it’s the children, not the center’s operators, who are incarcerated. I am still fighting my court charges for hugging these amazing mothers who continue to fight for their freedom.

I had not heard much about the Berks detention center until the fall of 2015, when I was informed that a 19-year-old woman was repeatedly raped by a guard at the facility, in one instance in front of an 8-year-old girl detained there. I was floored. Not only was the rape itself horrific, I had never seen an instance of children being detained like this, much less being subjected to this kind of trauma. 

Imagine: A young Honduran woman flees an abusive relationship in a country mired in corruption and poverty with her child—risking their lives to find freedom and safety—but instead, when she arrives in the U.S., she is serially raped by a man who was paid to incarcerate her indefinitely. 

Eventually, her rapist was charged and found guilty, but he could potentially spend less time in jail than many of the women inside of the center.

Since this incident, we at Juntos have fought to shut the Berks detention center down and to end nationally the practice of jailing families and immigrants. 

Last summer more than 18 women—who were detained for almost a year despite clear federal guidance that 20 days should be a maximum—organized a strike against the abusive work program inside the center: They were paid $1 a day to clean the facility. One of the strikers, a witness to the rape, was unjustly deported with her daughter and was ultimately returned to the U.S. after a judge ordered the U.S. government to bring her back. 

The innocent young people incarcerated at the Berks center are suffering irreparable, lifelong harm from their detention. They live in conditions that have already led to repeated illness and trauma, all documented in their medical reports. Many of the children are depressed, and at least one has expressed a desire to kill himself. 

Yet, the center remains open. 

Then, last month, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson publicly stated—contrary to clear evidence—that families were being detained an average of only 20 days. 

In response, 22 mothers released a letter saying they will leave the center dead or alive. They have been starving themselves for over a month now on a hunger strike, longer than the length of maximum detention, losing weight and growing weaker every single day. The children, to join with their mothers in demanding freedom, are now threatening to strike the education program, which provides only one teacher for all middle and high school students there.

Violating human rights and causing trauma to these women and children is unacceptable—and entirely unnecessary. 

Since the day the license was revoked, the state of Pennsylvania has had the power to rescue these women and children from their abuse through an emergency removal order. We call for all Pennsylvanians to hold Gov. Tom Wolf accountable: We must tell him that the doors of this barbaric facility should be shuttered immediately and demand that, while their asylum cases are pending, the mothers and their children be released to the families they already have in the U.S. 

 The world is suffering from a global refugee crisis, much of which is rooted in war and unfair trade agreements that create poverty and corruption at the hands of the powerful for their personal gain. We must address migration by addressing root causes, not incarcerating families—the victims of this global crisis—who desperately need our support. 

Their lives, and our humanity, are at stake.

Erika Almiron is the executive director of Juntos, a community-led, Latino immigrant organization in South Philadelphia fighting for the human rights of workers, parents, youth and immigrants. Gov. Tom Wolf can be reached at 717-787-2500.