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Home / Press Release / Detained Mothers Begin Hunger Strike at Berks Immigration Detention Facility 
August 11, 2016

Detained Mothers Begin Hunger Strike at Berks Immigration Detention Facility 

New York City–Human Rights First today renewed its calls on the Obama Administration to end its policy of detaining women and children seeking U.S. protection following the announcement of 22 mothers detained at the Berks County Detention Facility in Pennsylvania—many for over one year—that they began a hunger strike on Monday to protest their continued detention and the severe impact it has had on their children's health and well-being. In an open letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, the women detailed their experiences in detention.

“The Obama Administration’s detention of families has had severely traumatizing effects on both children and their mothers,” said Human Rights First’s Olga Byrne, who has visited the detention facility numerous times. “Even a few days in detention can be harmful to the health of children. Some of these mothers and children have been held in U.S. immigration detention for over one year now. This approach is not only devastating to children, it is also a shocking waste of government resources. Instead of detaining families at taxpayer cost, the families can be released to live with relatives in the United States, or if there are particular needs for additional appearance support in any cases, they can be released to community support programs, which are far more cost-effective than detention."

Last month a ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that children should not be detained in unlicensed and secure detention centers. The ruling supports a 2015 ruling that the government’s detention policy violated the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement (Flores), which governs the standards for the detention, release, and treatment of minors in immigration custody. 

In October 2015, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services announced that it would not renew a license previously granted to operate the Berks County Residential Center as a child residential facility—which expired on February 21, 2016— since the facility was in fact operating “for the detention of immigrant families, including adults.” Berks County has appealed the decision to not license the facility and that case remains pending before the state agency's Bureau of Hearing Appeals. 

Human Rights First has issued multiple reports on the U.S. policy of sending asylum seeking mothers and children to immigration detention facilities, including a report last year on detention at Berks, and a brief earlier this year documenting Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) failure to respond appropriately to mothers' requests for assistance regarding their children's health problems. A growing body of medical literature has found that detention is harmful to children’s health

In the letter to Secretary Johnson the women wrote: "On many occasions, our children ask us if we have the courage to escape. They grab the chord that holds their ID cards and tighten it around their necks, saying they want to die if they don’t get out. And the smallest children, who are only two years old, cry during the night because they cannot express what they feel." 

Many of the families are caught up in a legal process that is challenging the government's handling of their protection screening adjudications which, for some mothers, resulted in a negative determination. A report recently released by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found that "[a]djudicating the fear claims of mothers and children from Central America present unique problems" and challenges, since some mothers are obliged to articulate their fears in the presence of their children and therefore may withhold certain traumatizing facts, and that children may have their own, independent claims to protection.

Moreover, detention is not necessary, even when families present with legal cases. Community-based alternatives to detention have been proven to support appearance at hearings, while also providing families with social support, when needed. Legal counsel is also key to ensuring due process and compliance with immigration proceedings. When mothers and children were represented by counsel, they appeared for hearings 98 percent of the time. All of the mothers currently detained at Berks have legal counsel representing them, an unusual statistic, given that only 14 percent of detained immigrants nationally have legal representation. 

The Obama Administration's long-term detention of mothers and children at Berks comes at a time when the Administration is detaining record numbers of asylum seekers, as documented in Human Rights First's new report, “Lifeline on Lockdown: Increased U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers.”  The report shows that some ICE officers and field offices disregard the 2009 asylum parole directive, which was issued by the Obama Administration, and have taken the position that asylum seekers are a top enforcement priority under DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson’s November 2014 memorandum, extending detention for many months even when asylum seekers meet the relevant parole or release criteria. Congress has also set a quota for the number of immigration detention beds to be funded, which is inconsistent with U.S. international legal obligations that prohibit unnecessary detention.  

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, and many groups have similarly called for the administration to immediately end deportation raids against families.  

For more information or to speak with Byrne, contact Corinne Duffy at DuffyC@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3319