History is full of places designed to hide people. People like Alexandre Dumas’ Man in the Iron Mask, imprisoned on an island in the Mediterranean with his identity concealed. Refugees subject to inhumane treatment by the Australian government on the island of Nauru. And, in the United States, for a long time it seemed that the Berks County Residential Center (or, as advocates and lawyers in the family detention world call it, “Berks”) would be that place. When historians look back on this time in the United States political past, when they examine the justifications and repercussions of jailing refugee parents and children, Berks felt destined to play that role.
Until, that is, August 8th 2016, when 26 extraordinarily brave mothers began protesting their detention by going on a hunger strike. Seventeen of them are also party to a lawsuit challenging the American government’s almost careless treatment of their refugee claims. Those 17 remain in custody, victims of intensifying government retaliation. On September 1, after a seven-day fast meant to regain strength and fight back against threats of having their children taken away, they re-started their strike, joined by five new mothers.
These mothers are taking the most desperate act they can take –one usually reserved for political prisoners in countries like Iran or North Korea – and I believe we should listen.
I first became involved with family detention issues when I volunteered with the CARA Project in Dilley, Texas, in May. Though I no longer represent individual clients, I had spent years representing detained immigrants and asylum seekers before joining my current job. I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t. I came back from Dilley a little more broken and a little more disenchanted with our government. But I also came back spurred to action. I’ve continued to be involved, helping out remotely whenever I can, trying to raise awareness for the issues, and working with women locally once they are released. Little by little, through this connection or that, I got pulled into the work happening at Berks.
My first real interaction with the Berks team – three private attorneys who devote the majority of their time providing free legal and support services to the residents of Berks – was when I was asked to help stop the deportation of two women. We did stop one, as the mother and her small child sat in the airport minutes away from the plane taking off. The second mother bravely resisted her deportation, refusing to leave her room, her eight-year-old boy sitting quietly on the bed next to her, holding her hand to give her strength. Two weeks later another deportation was stopped, this time because of a mechanical issue with the plane that gave Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) time to realize they did not have legal authority to deport the mother and her teenage daughter. From there I kept in touch with the team, offering support and assistance when I could, but from afar.
Last week, I went to Berks for the first time to meet with the team and some of the mothers. It was the day after they made the decision to temporarily suspend their hunger strike, and the day the government tried to transfer one of the mothers to another facility as retaliation for her role in the strike. Once again I thought I was prepared. I had been to Dilley by now, after all. I wasn’t. Where in Dilley (and, I imagine, the facility in Karnes) there is still hope, in Berks it feels like all hope is gone. In Dilley there are always things to do, another step you can take, another way to fight back. In Berks, women and children are put there to be forgotten.
The stories of medical and mental health abuses are already documented, and even worse when you hear them in person. But the most gut-wrenching moments are those you spend dwelling on the injustice of it all. Women are punished for taking care of a toddler boy left alone by ICE for four days while his mother was hospitalized. Children become suicidal before they are even ten years old. They all have fears of returning home – why else would they remain in this prison for a year? A prison where they are fed food that harms their health, where their medical needs are routinely ignored, and where they are talked down to if they are spoken to at all. Many of them were not afforded an ability to explain that fear in a meaningful way, but still, the government contends the fact that they received an interview at all means due process was served. Never mind that in many of these interviews the women were told to only answer with yes or no. How do you explain that you were violently raped multiple times and in your own home by using only yes or no?
And still, despite the renewed attention on Berks, they remain on the margins of the work to end family detention. They are the smallest facility – a total of 94 beds, about 75 of which are currently occupied by approximately 35 families. So the focus, and the volunteer efforts, remain on the far larger facilities of Dilley and Karnes. A petition to raise awareness of what is happening in Berks is at 1,400 signatures, only 100 shy of the 1,500 they need to send it to President Obama and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. A fundraiser, aiming to raise $5,000 to fund an onsite volunteer and advocacy coordinator for 6 months has stalled at $1,760.
The efforts and volunteer activity that have gone on for two years now to help the mothers and children detained in Artesia, Dilley, and Karnes are incredible – and desperately needed. But 26 mothers stopped eating to get us to pay attention to what they are going through. They, and our incredible colleagues who are turning their lives over to support them, need our attention too. We need to help these brave moms bring hope back to Berks.
Written by Camille Mackler, AILA Member and CARA Volunteer