The Department of Homeland Security’s “zero tolerance policy” for undocumented immigrants crossing into the United States has caused a major uproar around the country. The protests intensified as images of children being held in cages started to circulate on social media. People across the nation could not believe that our country would do such horrible things to children.
The outcry has focused on the morality of separating young children from parents when they are most vulnerable – seeking asylum and protection from violence and persecution back home. Since then, we learned the images were from 2014, when the undocumented minor crisis first spiked, with over 60,000 children crossing our borders from Central and South America largely to escape gang violence.
This episode made me consider how much we, as a society, really know about the treatment of immigrant children in the U.S. and whether we realize that children being housed in cages is only the tip of the iceberg.
For example, many people would be surprised to know that Pennsylvania is home to the misleadingly named Berks Family Residential Center, one of three family immigration detention centers in the U.S. contracted by ICE to incarcerate children and families awaiting asylum determinations.
I’ve been to this facility—I’ve seen the despair in the eyes of mothers holding their children, looking at me helplessly. After I left the facility, I was overcome with numerous emotions: anger, sorrow and shame. As a soon-to-be-lawyer, in the vicinity of privilege, I still couldn’t do anything to alleviate their pain. I knew this was wrong.
While detention of children and families in the U.S. has been a controversial concept since its inception, Berks is especially known for its medical neglect, psychological trauma, and sexual harassment of families and children who are caged there.
The problems at Berks have been so bad that the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has revoked its license, and the state of Pennsylvania denied approval for its request for expansion of beds. However, Berks County filed an administrative appeal to keep the facility open. The county won that appeal in 2017, and the case is currently in legal limbo.
It is well known that systems of family detention are incapable of satisfying basic obligations for the health and well-being of children and families in custody, leading to serious concerns about safety, medical and mental health, and due-process violations. Numerous federal reports have yielded negative findings regarding family detention centers. Furthermore, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association, family detention costs over $200 of taxpayer money per individual, per day. Detaining these children and families is not only immoral but also costly.
Viable, realistic alternatives to detention are available. Why not employ them? Closing the Berks detention facility would stop additional families from being incarcerated and allow the women and children to be released under more humane approaches to detention, including bail, monitoring and supervision practices to ensure they report to court for their immigration cases.
It is easy to be infuriated by reading provocative headlines and simultaneously feeling a sense of satisfaction for further engaging on social media. But the reality for the thousands of children and families constantly living under daily threats of our own making will not change through simple outrage.
I hope we learn to channel our shock and newfound power toward real policy goals with measurable impact. I’ve got one in mind: shut down Berks detention center!
Akbar Hossain writes about community engagement, immigrants’ rights and access to education.