The Berks Mothers: Captives in the Land of the Free

Protestors support the Berks Mothers – photo courtesy of the Berks Mothers

Protestors support the Berks Mothers – photo courtesy of the Berks Mothers

We haven’t even flipped the calendar page to October as I write this column, but I can tell that the kids at the four schools I pass on my way to the train station every day are already sick of school. Maybe, if they are especially bored (and intrepid), they’re starting to hatch plans of how to ditch classes for a day and instead go claim the nearest Pokémon gym for their team.  

Some 35 miles west of here, in Leesport, another group of kids is also weighing the possibility of cutting classes. But their reasons have nothing to do with humdrum school routines or creative ways of avoiding them. 

In fact, when these kids speak about the new academic year, it is with a plaintive sense of yearning.

The children – seven of them – who range in age from 12 to 17, are from Berks County Residential Center, and when they send me an email Sept. 6, they describe all that yearning, and more. 

They tell me how they are scrambling to find a way to support their moms – the Madres Berks (Berks Mothers) who started a hunger strike on Aug. 8, protesting their extraordinarily long detentions. The kids have hit on the idea of going on strike as well. A student strike, they say, held at the detention center where they attend classes. And eat. And sleep. The place they inhabit 24/7.

Sept. 15 – the Independence Day for all Central American nations – is the day they’ve chosen as a start date for the strike. The symbolism resonates: The desire for freedom drives independence. Or is it the other way around? Either way, it is not mere rhetoric for these kids – freedom is a small flame of hope they bank against all odds. 

“We have a voice,” they write. “We want it to be heard, so we can secure the freedom we long for.”  

Three of the seven kids who sign the email have been held at the center more than a year, another three are a few months shy, and the “new kid” among them has been held in detention for five months. 

They are all Central American. Along with their mothers, they sought asylum in the United States after fleeing from countries with some of the highest homicide rates in the world. What they got instead of refuge were walls. And not nice ones.

The Berks facility where the kids and their mothers are housed is one of three Immigration and Customs Enforcement family detention centers in the nation – the other two are in Texas – has a less-than-stellar history.

In fact, on Jan. 30, 2015, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services announced it would not be renewing the facility’s license (which was set to expire that February), citing that the center was operating beyond what it was authorized to do, which was to house children – not children and adults together. 

Earlier that same month, a staff member of the center was arrested for repeated sexual contact with a 19-year-old detainee, some of it witnessed by an 8-year-old child. Then, in March 2015, Pennsylvania Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery/Delaware) spoke out publicly about the terrible conditions at the center. “While the Berks facility is not a state prison under my purview,” he told journalist Ana Gamboa, “it is a facility in our commonwealth that is currently holding human beings, including children, against their will in conditions that seem negligent, abusive, and tragic.”

Some of the abuse and negligence at Berks that has been documented by attorneys and Human Rights First includes: written requests for medical help for children that were ignored by Berks staff, but forwarded to ICE. The agency responded to the requests by suggesting that in order to receive treatment, the detainee mothers must agree to withdraw any asylum requests; a 2-year-old, vomiting blood for three days, was given water to drink as her sole treatment, then sent back to her room wearing the same blood-soaked shirt; a 5-year-old suffering from diarrhea for three weeks received no treatment at all; staff members woke detainees (adults and children) every 15 minutes during the night, shining flashlights in their eyes during safety and security checks;  an 8-year-old girl was forced to share sleeping quarters with an unknown man. 

In June 2015, 10 women in the center launched a work strike, refusing to perform the cleaning labors assigned to them and remunerated at $1 per day. According to a 2014 New York Times report, some 60,000 immigrants worked in the federal government’s detention centers in 2013, and were paid 13 cents an hour – thus saving authorities the $40 million a year it would have had to pay minimum-wage workers to do the job. 

When Berks started to feel the effects of the strike, the center’s administration reportedly added children as young as 13 to the work roster. 

That same month, one of the striking mothers and her 13-year-old child were suddenly deported in the middle of night – even though their case for asylum (on the basis of domestic abuse) was still pending. (The two were subsequently “un-deported” – the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ordered ICE to bring them back, and they were then released from Berks with ankle monitors.)

The 22 mothers participating in the current hunger strike say they have been psychologically tortured by staff members who have allegedly threatened to separate them from their children, and have periodically barred access to the outdoors, the offices of social workers and of legal counsel. In the Berks Mothers’ most recent communication, they mention new and seemingly arbitrary limits on the hours staff members will allow them outside – from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

In the meantime, Sept. 15 comes and goes without my hearing a word from the Berks kids. 

It is the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month (which runs through Oct. 15) and people are starting to promote the feel-good features and events celebrating Latinxs in the U.S. that proliferate at this time of year. 

If this were one of those stories, it would have a happy ending: The kids and their moms finally on the outside of those walls that have hemmed them in, every hour of every day for the past year.

But there is no such resolution in this story. 

When I finally hear from the kids, they tell me they’ve decided not to strike because their lawyers think it might damage their legal cases. And might get their mothers in trouble.

“But we’re going to continue looking for a way we can protest,” the kids tell me. They haven’t given up on freedom, and their independence day, yet. 

And that is a tiny but certain glimmer of hope I can hang onto.