Pa. ICE detainee stops her own deportation with a phone call

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About 200 protesters hold a vigil outside the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport. Despite being told that they would risk arrest if they stepped out into the street, eighteen demonstrators decided to sit in the road. Police officers stand by. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

About 200 protesters hold a vigil outside the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport. Despite being told that they would risk arrest if they stepped out into the street, eighteen demonstrators decided to sit in the road. Police officers stand by. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

Around 2:45 a.m. on July 24, staff came into R.’s room at the Berks Family Residential Center and told her to pack her bags. She and her 6-year-old son were being deported to El Salvador.

WHYY has agreed to withhold her name because she is concerned about gangs there targeting her or her family members.

Recent scrutiny of conditions at immigrant detention centers near the U.S.-Mexico border has brought renewed attention to the facility where R. had been held.

Psychologists, local members of Congress, and a Temple University law professor, have all publicly called for the Berks Family Residential Center to shut down, saying that detention harms children. One of the Berks County Commissioners who authorizes it has also called to end the county’s contract with the federal government, saying he doesn’t want county employees to be associated with immigration enforcement under the Trump Administration.

To R., holding immigrant families “is not fair.”

The 27-year-old’s story highlights the way detention can speed immigrants towards deportation, even when they have legal action pending on their cases.

That early morning in July, she just wanted to talk to her lawyer. But, R. said she had to convince staff to let her use a phone.

“I said, ‘With all respect, I know you’re doing your job, but I am defending my rights,” she said in a later interview, in Spanish.

Eventually, R. said a supervisor brought her a phone and she began calling family members, and fatefully, her immigration attorney, Bridget Cambria.

Judge: Being a police officer not grounds for asylum

When families were sleeping in overcrowded facilities near the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this year, the Berks Family Residential Center was nearly empty, with many recent arrivals coming from within the United States, say advocates. Two families, one from California and one from Philadelphia, wound up in Berks following small-scale arrests touted by President Donald Trump as raids.

Last month, R.’s and her son were sent to Berks from the border — the northern border, after spending four years living in the United States petitioning for asylum.

In El Salvador, R. said she had owned a small business, selling lingerie and perfume. Her husband was a policeman — a profession that would put the family in the crosshairs of the country’s notorious gangs.

When her son was a toddler, the family started receiving calls and visits from gang members, she said.

“One day, they called and threatened to cut my son into 13 pieces, and to send the head to my husband’s office,” she said.

When her husband complained of threats from MS-13 gang members to his superiors in law enforcement, he was labeled a snitch, and the threats continued, said R.

In 2014, R. and her son fled, arriving at the U.S. border in McAllen, Texas and asked for asylum. Her husband followed.

R. cleared one bar for asylum, by showing that she had a credible fear of returning home. The family started making a new life in Houston, where R. eventually got a job as a contractor for Amazon’s delivery service, Amazon Flex.

In 2018, they appeared in immigration court, and their case went south.

“The judge said that he believed us and our story, but there was a [previous] decision… that said that because my husband became a police officer, he knew the risks he was taking,” said R., referring to immigration case law from the 1980s. The immigration judge ruled that the family did not quality for asylum, and issued a removal order.

Continuing to fight their case in the United States would require extensive legal fees, and no guarantee of success. A friend had gotten a visa to visit Canada, and, once there, had applied for asylum, after being denied in the United States, so the family decided to try their luck at the northern border.

Around July 4, U.S. Customs and Border Protection arrested them trying to cross near a residential area in Blaine, Washington, just south of British Columbia.

“We just tried to walk across, because in our minds, who cares if we’re leaving? We’re not hurting anyone,” said R.

Her husband was deported, and is now in hiding in El Salvador. R. and her son were transported to the Berks Family Residential Center. Inside the Center, some women do crafts to pass the time. R. sends emails to her husband and to attorneys about what’s going on inside. She said it’s frustrating not to be able to control small things, like what food she or her son eat, or whether he can get a second portion.

“My son always asks me what did we do to be in jail … I don’t know how to answer, I tell him, ‘No, my love, we’re not in jail, we’re on vacation,” she said.

‘A troubling sequence of events’

After placing dozens of calls, and finally reaching her attorney, R. and her son were put on a plane, then another one.

They were about to leave on a third, from Alexandria, Louisiana to El Salvador, when she got the news — her deportation was halted. Cambria had requested, and received, a stay on her removal. She would be returning to Berks.

“It was God using my lawyer. God knows all my problems and knows all the danger I’m running from,” she remembered thinking.

Cambria said R.’s removal from the Center was sudden, and that both she and the Board of Immigration Appeals, which is currently reviewing a motion in R.’s case, should have been notified her client was going to be deported.

U.S. Congresswoman Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery, who visited the center on July 21 and met R., also called the attempted deportation “a troubling sequence of events.”

An ICE spokesman refuted those claims, saying since a judge had previously denied R.’s case, she could be removed from the country.

“Once a resident has exhausted all appeals, petitions for relief, and has been issued a final removal order by an immigration judge and/or the Bureau of Immigration Appeals, ICE officers must comply with those orders,” he said. The spokesman also said the BIA had been notified.

After 48 hours in transit, R. and her son returned to Berks. She said the way her family has been treated in the United States is like “a slap in the face.”

“We decided that we had to leave [El Salvador] without realizing how this country sees us,” she said.

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