When 8-year-old Antonio* appeared in a Pennsylvania immigration court Monday via video stream, it marked the first time a judge had laid eyes on him after 707 days in detention. An asylum seeker from El Salvador, he said hello to the judge in English, which he had learned to speak while detained. Then he listened carefully.
“Antonio knew the moment the judge ruled to set him free,” his attorney, Bridget Cambria, told Rewire. “He smiled so big and wide, and then he did a little dance. It was very cute.”
More extraordinary scenes played out Thursday at bond hearings for 4-year-old Carlos* and 16-year-old Michael*, and for a 3-year-old last Monday. All were held for 22 months at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania.
“At one point Carlos said to the judge, unprovoked, ‘I want to get out of here with my mom,'” Cambria recalled. “In the end, that is what he got.”
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The question the hearings addressed was not whether the boys had legitimate asylum requests based on the violence they fled in Honduras and El Salvador, but whether they should remain detained while their cases were reviewed. The judges released all of the boys with their mothers on their own recognizance, and chastised Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for flouting an established federal order that limits the time it can hold children to 20 days.
It was a remarkable turn of events for four families who were all part of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, which argued they had the right for a federal judge to order a review of their denied asylum claim. During a lengthy appeals process, the government successfully fought to keep the participating mothers and children detained at Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania. As time wore on, the women went on hunger strikes to draw attention to calls for their release. In May, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a lower court’s rejection of the case, and ten families were deported. The four who stayed were eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile status and a green card, but had remained detained until now.
During this week’s hearings at York Immigration Court, ICE argued the government had to reject the boys’ bond requests because they were still subject to a fast-track deportation process known as “expedited removal.” But the judges agreed with lawyers for the families that this was no longer true, citing a June decision in the Flores v. Reno settlement agreement that found such cases were not exempt from the well-established three to 20 day detention limit for children.
The reasons for such limits were outlined last year in a Human Rights First report that monitored children subjected to prolonged detention at Berks and found they suffered from “suicidal gestures … anxiety, sleeplessness, behavioral regressions, and lack of appetite.” Mothers detained at Berks have also documented poor food quality, lack of access to mental health care, and sexual assaults by guards. A United Nations human rights report found detention of immigrants and asylum seekers in the United States is often “punitive, unreasonably long, unnecessary, [and] costly,” and urged that it only be used as a last resort.
The Berks cases are extreme examples compared to how long ICE holds most women and children. But legal advocates say they could apply similar legal strategies to request bond hearings for detainees at the South Texas Family Residential Center run by CoreCivic and nearby GEO Group-owned Karnes County Residential Center.
“The average length of stay we saw before was two or three weeks, and now that is closer to four to six weeks,” said Amy Fisher, policy director for Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, a group that offers pro-bono legal aid to detained families. “We see folks who wait for weeks to have a hearing, or even have a credible fear interview. Those given a positive fear determination still see a delay in their release.”
In May an Afghani mother held with her two children at Karnes was finally released after six months, when she attempted to commit suicide as her asylum case dragged on. Her sister-in-law is still held at the family detention center in Dilley, Texas, with her newborn baby.
Family detention centers are also filling up from mothers and children who are not recent arrivals, but were instead arrested in ICE’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants and their children who have lived in the country for many years. In a conference call with investors last week, GEO Group said it expected a rebound in revenue due to a “gradual increase in interior enforcement.”
Meanwhile, Cambria says the families released from Berks are adjusting well to their new lives of relative freedom as they settle down in cities throughout the country.
“The ability to just walk free and not be watched constantly and be stuck in one building makes them better moms, and a better person emotionally and psychologically,” Cambria told Rewire. “It’s what they needed and what their children needed, for sure.”
The mothers must wear electronic ankle monitors while their cases are pending and attend regular check-ins with ICE. They each have a stay of removal in place that prevents them from being deported, but will have to be renewed. The children are eligible for legal status.
For now, their attorneys are working on a new challenge: ICE has appealed all of the recent releases and requested a discretionary stay that would return the families to detention, a move usually reserved for dangerous criminals.
“It is profoundly cruel for the Trump administration to deny [their] right to freedom just days after their release,” wrote Naureen Shah, senior director of campaigns for Amnesty International USA, in a statement responding to the appeal.
*Names have been changed to protect the children’s identity for their safety.