Since Nov. 8, deportation for some at Berks immigrant detention facility accelerates

     The Berks County Residential Center is an immigration detention center located about 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    The Berks County Residential Center is an immigration detention center located about 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    This week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security stated it will “not exempt classes or categories of removal aliens from potential enforcement,” signalling a much broader approach to immigration enforcement.

    As early as Nov. 8, six families — immigrant women and their children — held in a Pennsylvania immigration detention center saw their deportation proceedings speed up.

    Four of the six families had some kind of pending immigration claim or complaint. While not unprecedented or necessarily illegal, these deportations represent a shift away from “discretion” for families offered under the Obama administration, according to immigration lawyers.

    About 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the Berks County Detention Center is hope to between 80 and 90 women and children, most of whom have final removal orders. It is one of four centers in the country to detain children on behalf of federal immigration authorities, and the only one outside of Texas.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Immigration attorney Bridget Cambria, who represents the families at the center, said the move to deport some of her clients is a change in policy.

    “If you have a pathway to relief, normally, they’ll give them discretion,” she said, referring to the practice by federal immigration officials to delay the removal of immigrants with pending, or especially sensitive, cases. Other immigration attorneys and advocates familiar with deportation proceedings agreed that this discretion is typical, if not absolute.

    Instead, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement has deported some women and children with outstanding immigration claims or who, at the very least, have not received travel documents from their countries of origin, usually a prerequisite for deportation.

    A “notice of impending removal” filed in federal court by the Department of Homeland Security and reviewed by NewsWorks describes this process.

    “The removal will take place via an ICE Air Charter Flight that will originate in Alexandria, Louisiana, and then stop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, before proceeding directly to El Salvador,” it states. Without travel documents, families may not take commercial flights back to their countries of origin, the more typical procedure, necessitating the private flight.

    The notice said the El Salvadoran government gave “permission” to repatriate the families, in lieu of travel documents.

    ICE did not return requests for comment on these deportations.

    A shift in protocol

    While not unprecedented, sidestepping immigration relief, the use of chartered flights and forgoing travel documentations all signal a more aggressive stance towards these families, according to advocates.

    Brennan Gian-Grasso, a Philadelphia-based immigration attorney, said in the past, whether an immigration claim can halt deportation depends heavily on the type of petition.

    “Under the Obama administration, especially with ‘U’ visas, where people were victims of crimes, there was a policy to grant stays of removal while those visas were pending,” he said. Similarly, the U.S. has an established practice of deporting unauthorized Mexican immigrants without travel documents. For other countries, a diplomatic handoff, signified by documents, is more typical.

    Dozens of documents related to deportations from the center requested by NewsWorks show women typically leaving on commercial flights from JFK International Airport in New York, after travel documents had been issued.

    Under the new administration, however, the fear among advocates for immigrants is that any extra consideration or discretion for sensitive cases will fade, Gian-Grasso said. 

    “What the new [presidential] executive orders are seeming to say is that that that kind of discretion will be coming on a case-by-case basis, and the unspoken aspect is … don’t expect that discretion to be given quite as generously,” he said.

    That has Cambria and other advocates turning to the judicial system when possible.

    In one case, lawyers secured a stay for a family slated for deportation, a 20-year-old from El Salvador and her 3-year-old daughter.

    The mother “was orphaned at the age of 3, and had suffered terrible violence as a child. As a young mom … she was alone and had been targeted by the Mara,” said Cambria, referring to an organized crime gang that has turned El Salvador into one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

    That personal history is the basis for her client’s petition for a special immigrant juvenile visa, which opens the path to a green card. Cambria requested NewsWorks not use her client’s name, because her case is still pending.

    Last month, a family court in New York ordered that the client could proceed with her case. On the heels of this order, ICE moved to deport her. Last week, Cambria, along with the support of some other attorneys, won a stay on her client’s deportation.

    “The reality is they’re enforcing against the most vulnerable,” said Cambria, referring to statements that immigrants with criminal convictions are the highest priority for deportation.

    Recent memos from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have begun to clarify what President Trump’s executive orders on immigration will do. Under the new administration, immigration enforcement priorities are shaping up to be much broader than under Obama. But whether the expansion of expedited removals will affect those eligible for immigration benefits is “under development,” according to guidance document from DHS.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal