This summer, 22 women detained with their children in a Berks County immigration center went on a hunger strike.
Some had been housed for more than a year in the nondescript government building. Others complained of poor medical treatment for themselves and their children.
Their protest came a year after California federal court Judge Dolly Gee ruled that federal family residential centers had to stop detaining children for more than a few days — allowing 20 at most.
But the longer holds continue, in limited numbers, stoking a debate over whether the centers are still being used punitively, or are a necessary tool to manage immigration.
Families in legal limbo
In the United States, the Constitution generally bars the government from indefinitely detaining individuals without a trial.
But there are a few exceptions, namely in times of war, in the case of alleged terrorists, and in some cases to control immigration. Under these circumstances, governments may employ a practice called “administrative detention” to imprison people outside the established criminal justice channels.
It’s through that process that women and children who cross the border illegally end up at a 96-bed residential facility in Leesport.
From the outside, the Berks Family Residential Center doesn’t resemble a stereotypical prison. The boxy, plain brick facade blends in with nearby government buildings, spaced out along a leafy country road.
NewsWorks was not granted permission to enter the building, but pictures taken inside and descriptions provided by detainees paint a picture of an institutional, dormlike setting.
Speaking by phone, fourteen-year-old Alison Mendez Leiva, who spent more than 13 months in the center with her mother and older sister, described an atmosphere of surveillance, starting with a morning check-in and going through the night.
“Every 15 minutes, they open the door and they have a flashlight and they check things,” she said, noting the bed checks make it hard to sleep. “They don’t do it silently.”
The Mendez Leiva family, like most in the center, fled widespread organized crime and domestic violence in El Salvador. They came to the United States and applied for asylum — not the order of events the U.S. government would like to encourage.
Alison’s mother, Carmen Leiva, said winding up in indefinite detention after coming to this country has been hard on her teenage daughters.
“This is affecting them tremendously, psychologically … sometimes they eat, sometimes they not eat,” she said. The family won release after Leiva had emergency gallbladder surgery and successfully lobbied for medical leave. Their immigration case is pending an appeal.
Clinical social worker Kathy Miller has independently evaluated some of the younger, long-term residents at the Berks center, many of whom have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“They would get so desperate and hopeless that they would express that they wanted to kill themselves if they weren’t released,” she said. At least two child detainees would go even further, she said, “wrapping their lanyard around their neck.”
Administrative and criminal justice detention of young children can lead to depression, anxiety and stunted development, according to an international body of research. Long stays also exacerbate trauma of fleeing a war-torn country, according to Miller, who specializes in working with kids who have experienced trauma in Philadelphia.
Records of psychological evaluations done by detention center staff and shared with NewsWorks show mental health workers often didn’t talk to children during regular mental health check-ups. Residents also complained their medical issues were not always handled promptly for follow-up care or specialist visits.
In 2014, the Obama administration dramatically increased its commitment to family detention in response to a wave of unaccompanied immigrant children and families fleeing pervasive, militarized gang violence in Central America.
Legal challenges to detaining children followed on the heels of that ramp up. At its peak, the federal government kept its 3,326 family residential center beds across Texas and Pennsylvania full.
In June 2015, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced “substantial changes to our detention practices when it comes to families.”
“In substance — the detention of families will be short-term in most cases,” he said in a statement, shortly before Gee ruled that detaining immigrant children violated a previous settlement and ordered stays be no longer than three to five days, barring exceptional circumstances.
In practice, ICE releases more than 90 percent of families who cross the border illegally within three weeks.
“That still leaves hundreds of children and their mother who are not released in that short time period and may be detained or are detained for months on end, mostly at Berks,” said Peter Schey, lead attorney for the detainees in the federal case.
Federal government records requested by NewsWork confirmed this pattern, showing several transfers from the two Texas detention centers to the Berks over a three month period, where stays surpassed the three-week outside limit imposed by the courts.
The ruling does allow immigrants who have committed crimes, or are deemed a flight risk, to be held longer.
In practice, ICE has interpreted that to mean it can exceed the time limit to detain children and their mothers who fail an initial asylum test at the border, according to Schey. At Berks, a group of women challenging their deportation on constitutional grounds are also held indefinitely, in many cases over a year.
“The government’s theory, is that they are still subject to mandatory detention because they were not approved during this preliminary political asylum interview,” he said. That language is echoed in court documents filed by ICE attorneys. Those interviews, which proceed to deportation without a formal hearing, are themselves controversial.
Attorneys and advocates for the detainees believe this still violates Judge Gee’s ruling.
Jackie Kline, a Reading-based immigration lawyer who has represented hundreds of clients at the Berks Family Residential Center, said penalizing women who initially fail and appeal their asylum claims is unjust.
“If you don’t appeal that, you’re going to be deported,” she said. “If you don’t appeal that, you’re going to be sent back to the county where you fear harm, where you fear death.” Kline said, in many cases, lawyers are able to secure asylum status for women and children who fail their initial interview.
At the federal level, Schey and his co-counsel are fighting the continued detention of children and a hearing is scheduled for January.
Speaking on C-SPAN earlier this year, Johnson said the federal government has tried to make the centers more humane.
“The process has reformed considerably when we first opened these things up,” he said.
To support that claim, ICE piloting a trauma-informed care program at one of its Texas facilities and is committed to making environments in the centers less restrictive.
In spite of these efforts, an advisory committee appointed by ICE recently recommended ending family detention as arbitrary, punitive and unnecessary, citing alternatives such as community placements for unaccompanied children. The committee’s reports found it could find no policy regarding why some families with identical claims are released and told to appear in court, while others are detained.
In the midst of this criticism, Johnson has stood firm behind the policy.
“I think these centers are important both to make informed decision both about who is a risk of flight…. so we’re not just engaging in catch-and-release at the border,” he said on C-SPAN.
The federal government has also made moves to shore up the practice of family detention, in the event a legal battle eventually forces existing detention centers to close.
This year, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services revoked the childcare license for the Berks Center. The Berks County Commission, which owns and operates the center, has appealed that decision.
In Texas, ICE has applied to license new detention facilities so they can keep holding families, albeit in less overtly punitive settings, should the court decide to shut down existing centers.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of transfers between the two family residential centers in Texas and the Berks County facility. The mistaken number referred to the number of deportations, not the number of transfers.