On Monday, 13 activists calling for an end to immigrant family detention were arrested for blocking traffic in Harrisburg.
Ten Senate Democrats, including Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and both New Jersey senators, picked up where they left off Wednesday in a letter calling for the release of 17 families.
“We are writing with urgent concern regarding the 17 mothers and 19 children subjected to prolonged detention at the Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania, nearly all for more than a year,” opens the letter addressed to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
The Berks Family Residential Center in Leesport is one of four facilities in the country where the federal government detains women and children who enter the U.S. without authorization. The other three, which include a new, temporary facility, are in Texas.
The 36 detainees, including children as young as 2, mentioned in the letter have requested U.S. asylum after fleeing violence in Central America. Their cases are a part of an ongoing appeal over immigration vetting procedures that could keep them in detention for another year.
The Obama administration ramped up detention of immigrant families during a sudden influx of single mothers and unaccompanied children who fled gang violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle in 2014. Almost immediately, human rights watch groups and immigration advocates decried the practice as inhumane and the centers as unfit for children.
“I’m of the belief that these families have suffered immeasurably,” said Casey Wednesday. “I’m really worried about the health of these mothers and the health of their children who have been through a lot already.”
Johnson, who has defended the process as a necessary vetting procedure near the border, has said Homeland Security has made changes to its facilities to be more kid-friendly and trauma-informed.
In the last year, state and federal circuit judges have ruled the centers must shorten stays for families and have denied child care licences to the two Texas facilities. Detention remains longer term in the Pennsylvania facility.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not immediately grant requests for comment on the senators’ letter; an ICE official said the agency will respond directly to the legislators.
Recent reports from the U.S.-Mexico border describe another surge of women and children arriving in late 2016.
Full text of the senators’ letter
Dear Secretary Johnson,
We are writing with urgent concern regarding the seventeen mothers and nineteen children subjected to prolonged detention at the Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania, nearly all for more than a year. These families are actively pursuing constitutional and statutory challenges in federal court seeking habeas review of the lawfulness of their removal orders, and all currently have a judicially ordered stay of removal in place. Given the recent decision of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to stay the deportation orders for these families through the filing and disposition of a petition to the Supreme Court, this could mean that these families could be faced with an additional year and a half of detention. That is unacceptable. The youngest of these children is just two years old and has spent half his life in detention. That time only grows as the Supreme Court review process continues.
Proven alternatives to detention exist, including ankle monitors and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Family Case Management Program. Each of these mothers stands ready and willing to accept release under conditions of monitoring and supervision as appropriate. Each of these families also has a family member or sponsor willing to take them in and ensure they appear for ICE check-ins and court appointments.
Using alternatives to detention for families in this posture is not without precedent, as 12 families who are still part of the Castro habeas review case have already been released to family members, despite being in the exact same legal posture as the families who remain in detention.
The psychological and medical impacts of long term detention on traumatized women and children are well documented. One of these detained mothers suffers from severe diabetes, which is not being properly treated and is causing a shutdown of her bodily systems. Children as young as six years old have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and have expressed thoughts of suicide.
Each of these 16 families in question have fled some of the most dangerous countries in the world, often escaping rape, murder, and domestic assault. They are pursuing their cases to the fullest extent of the law and deserve every opportunity to plead their case for asylum. Continuing to house these children and their mothers in a detention facility – and to allow the health effects of prolonged detention to discourage them from continuing to pursue their legal claims – when proven alternatives are available goes against our most fundamental values. We urge you to use alternatives to detention for these families and allow them to proceed with their federal court challenge outside of family detention unless there is compelling evidence that they pose a specific security risk.
We appreciate your prompt attention in this matter and look forward to a prompt response.
_______________________________ _______________________________Robert P. Casey, Jr. Patrick J. Leahy
_______________________________ _______________________________Robert Menendez Patty Murray
_______________________________ _______________________________Edward J. Markey Mazie K. Hirono
_______________________________ _______________________________Al Franken Cory A. Booker
_______________________________ _______________________________Sherrod Brown Elizabeth Warren