Nearly two dozen women held at a Berks County, Pennsylvania, migrant family detention center have launched a hunger strike to protest their and their children’s long detentions – some which have lasted over a year.
The 22 women say they’ve taken action in response to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s recent pronouncement that the average length of stay at family detention centers was 20 days or less.
“We want to disprove this information,” the women wrote in a letter to Johnson that McClatchy obtained. “If it is necessary to sacrifice our lives so that our children can have freedom: WE WILL DO IT!”
Referring to themselves as “Madres Berks,” the women say they’ve been held from 60 days to over 365 days. They care for 25 children ages 2 to 16. The majority of the mothers and children have been held for more than 200 days, they say.
Department of Homeland Security officials disputed the number of detainees who are on an official hunger strike because, officials said, less than a handful of women have refused to eat for more than 72 hours or have refused nine meals. All participants are being actively monitored by health officials and have been warned of the potential impacts of not eating, officials said.
“ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference,” an Immigration Customs and Enforcement official said by email. “ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers.”
We will get out alive or dead.
The Obama administration operates three family detention centers – the others are in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas _ all of which opened or expanded to address the surge of Central American migrant families who have rushed to the United States since 2014. The controversial centers have been the source of multiple allegations of abuse and poor conditions.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the Obama administration had violated an 18-year-old court settlement, known as Flores, regarding the detention of migrant children at the centers. She didn’t close the facilities but prohibited the administration from holding children in unlicensed and locked facilities for more than about 20 days unless they pose flight risks or threats to national security.
At a meeting with reporters Aug. 3 organized by The Christian Science Monitor, Johnson emphasized that the government doesn’t have open borders, but he said the administration was complying with Gee’s orders. He said they were also reassessing procedures after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the government is not required to release the parents along with a child.
“What Judge Gee said in her ruling last year, which we are abiding by, is that the department has added flexibility consistent with the terms of the settlement agreement in times of influx,” Johnson said. “And we’ve been, by the standard of 1997, at an influx for some time now. And so what we’ve been doing is ensuring the average length of stay at these facilities is 20 days or less. And we’re meeting that standard.”
What we’ve been doing is ensuring the average length of stay at these facilities is 20 days or less. And we're meeting that standard.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson
Lawyers for the families said many mothers and children were being held much longer. The administration has been moving mothers and their children after 20 days from the two Texas family detention centers, which are secure, to the Berks facility, lawyers say.
Pennsylvania revoked the state license of the Berks residential center in February but is allowing it to keep operating during an appeal. Berks is technically “unsecured,” which means the detainees could leave if they wanted to. However, anyone leaving the grounds would be considered a fugitive subject to arrest by immigration officials.
“Here we go again,” said Carol Anne Donohoe, a Pennsylvania lawyer who represents several women at the Berks facility. “At the end of this month, there will be at least six families who have been detained a year. There is no justification.”