On the afternoon of March 23, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released a 15-year-old girl and her father from the Berks County Residential Facility, one of three remaining family detention centers in the nation. Berks held the pair for 32 days and for a bulk of the young girl’s detainment, she told Rewire.News, she was the only female in an otherwise all-male facility.
Advocates working to shut down the family detention center have gained new momentum in light of her case.
Astrid and her father Arturo were initially taken into ICE custody at 5 a.m. in February. ICE officials said in a statement that the father, who is indigenous K’iche from Guatemala, was originally apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol near El Paso, Texas, in February 2015, though he was released on an order of recognizance pending a hearing before the Executive Office for Immigration Review. The father’s daughter was also apprehended at that time, according to their attorney. In June 2015, an immigration judge issued Arturo a final order of removal after he failed to attend his immigration proceedings.
Astrid and Arturo’s attorney, Carol Donohoe of Aldea—The People’s Justice Center—which provides immigrant children, families, and other refugees access to high-quality, pro bono legal representation—said that Arturo did not attend his court hearing in 2015 because he did not know about it. A missed court hearing automatically triggers an order of removal, and it’s not uncommon for undocumented immigrants to miss hearings because they were unaware they had been scheduled, do not have the means to attend, or because of bad advice from immigration attorneys, who instruct them to not go or they will be detained.
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Nevertheless, Donohoe called Astrid’s detainment “unlawful on multiple levels.”
“The Only Privacy I Have Is When I Shower”
In a phone interview, Donohoe said that ICE essentially conducted a “raid” on the home that Astrid and Arturo shared with other immigrant families in Easton, Pennsylvania. “They were all asleep when they were woken up by ICE, who detained several people in the house,” Donohoe said. “Some of them didn’t have removal orders. What it looks like they did, and it’s something ICE does a lot, is they enter a property saying they are looking for one, specific person, but then they take anyone on the property that is undocumented. I believe nine people were taken from Astrid’s house that night, including Astrid.” Astrid and Arturo were immediately sent to Berks.
Much like the other two family detention centers in the United States—Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, and the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley—Berks typically detained asylum-seeking mothers and their children, but the demographics of Berks have changed since we last reported on the detention center. Donohoe said that the families detained in Berks are now fathers and their sons, almost all of whom are also indigenous people from Guatemala. During Astrid’s 32 days at Berks, she was either the only female in the entire facility, or one of just a handful, according to the attorney.
“Once there was a little girl who was 5 years old. When the little girl left, there was a little while when there were two mothers and their sons,” Donohoe said. “But I can’t figure out why they would choose to detain a 15-year-old girl with her father in a location that is mostly male. There are no prison atmospheres that would ever allow for males and females, let alone kids of the opposite gender cohabitating.”
Sheetal Dhir, a senior campaigner at Amnesty International USA, which strongly advocated for Astrid during her detainment, verified that Astrid was the only teenage girl in a facility that holds mostly fathers.
Not only was she torn from her community, Dhir said, but Astrid “was isolated and alone without any friends her age.” Astrid should have been in school, she continued, “but instead she [was] behind bars far from everyone she knows.”
Astrid turned 15 while in Berks and for her birthday, two of her teachers from Easton Area Middle School came to visit her bearing gifts. Anticipating she needed personal items in detention, one of her teachers brought her a large bath towel. According to Donohoe, the teen was thrilled to have a towel that “covered her body.”
In a phone interview with Rewire.News before her release from Berks, Astrid confirmed there were showers designated for women.
“The only privacy I have is when I shower,” Astrid said through an interpreter. “I don’t feel comfortable here.”
Donohoe added that in Berks, which is a former nursing home that has been detaining families since 2000, Astrid and her father shared a room, but they shared a corridor with men and boys. Like the two Texas family detention centers, children at Berks typically live with their parents in dorm-style rooms with six beds, or cribs, alongside unrelated adults from other families.
“Everything is open, everyone mixes together, there are common rooms,” the attorney said. “And let’s be clear, this isn’t a statement on the character of the men detained there, this is not to disparage the fathers and sons detained there. This is simply an inappropriate setup.”
“On what universe is it acceptable to say it’s OK to detain a teenage girl with unknown men, many of whom don’t speak her language and who are coming in and out of the facility? Just imagine what it would be like to be a 15-year-old girl imprisoned with all men.”
When Rewire.News asked ICE to comment on the detainment of a teen girl in a mostly male facility, officials would only say that Berks “was developed to provide a safe, secure, and humane environment for families as they go through the immigration process” and that the family detention center is “able to accommodate both male and female residents.” The federal immigration agency also said that the “demographics at the center [are] fluid and change on a frequent basis.”
Miguel Andrade, communications director at Juntos—a Philadelphia-based immigrant rights organization that previously took part in a still-active campaign to shut down Berks—told Rewire.News that while he wasn’t familiar with the specifics of Astrid’s case, the fact that ICE would detain a teenage girl alongside men “was not surprising” to him.
“I say that to mean that it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary to me because ICE doesn’t have a history of being fair or humane. [Astrid’s] treatment is uncalled for, but not surprising,” Andrade said. “I fear for young girls and women like Astrid, but there’s also the larger concern regarding the continuation of family detention. These are prisons for asylum-seeking families and this system will only grow under Trump.”
The communications director pointed to President Trump’s pardoning of Arizona’s former sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, as a sign of what’s to come for the detention system. The former six-term sheriff was facing jail time after being convicted of criminal contempt for defying a judge’s order to stop targeting undocumented immigrants. Arpaio garnered national attention as the chief steward of the country’s most draconian anti-immigrant laws.
“This was a man who ran prisons and detention centers like internment camps. Trump happily pardoned a man who committed atrocities against immigrant communities. Family detention isn’t going to get better; it can’t get better with a white supremacist in power,” Andrade said.
“Berks Is Like A Black Hole”
There are other reasons Donohoe characterizes Astrid’s 32-day detainment at Berks as “unlawful.” In June 2017, a California district court ruling found that the federal government’s use of family detention facilities, including Berks, continues to violate the Flores Settlement Agreement.
The ruling reinforced that these facilities must be secure, licensed, and cannot hold children more than 20 days. Like many detained inside Berks, Astrid was held for longer than 20 days, though Astrid and Arturo were able to leave the facility relatively quickly compared to others. Some families in Berks have been detained almost two years.
“Berks is like a black hole where the Flores Agreement doesn’t exist,” Donohoe said. “It’s not a gray area, this facility is technically unlicensed, children and their families are held longer than 20 days, but still this place gets to operate.”
Berks’ license is a murky issue. In January 2016, Pennsylvania Department of Human Services’ (DHS) Bureau of Human Services Licensing notified Berks County Commissioners and the detention center’s director that it would not renew the license, and would revoke its certificate of compliance for Berks, which has operated since 2001 under a contract with Berks County and has 96 beds.
Pennsylvania DHS’ Bureau of Human Services Licensing wrote that Berks was “not operating as a child residential facility” and was instead “a residential center for the detention of immigrant families, including adults.” Berks County appealed, and for more than a year the facility operated under a suspended license. Then on April 20, 2017, an administrative judge sided with the county and ruled DHS “did not provide substantial evidence” for its decision and had “acted arbitrarily and capriciously, responding to outside pressures … instead of regulatory violations.”
Because the order came from an administrative judge, DHS’ counsel had 15 days to petition for reconsideration, which it did. If DHS acting secretary Teresa Miller grants the request, she can uphold or overrule the decision.
In July 2017, a DHS spokesperson told a local media outlet that DHS’ “departmental review remains under consideration.” This is where things stand today.
In a statement to Rewire.News, a DHS spokesperson said Berks “continues to operate while pending appeal, as is its right to due process” and that the agency “has investigated every allegation presented and to date has not found cause that would warrant emergency closure.”
“Shut Down Berks” Gains New Relevance
Jasmine Rivera, formerly a lead organizer with Juntos, has remained active on the campaign to shut down Berks, spending the last three years advocating to end family detention. Organizers like Rivera are working with the Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple University Beasley School of Law to obtain an emergency removal order against Berks, which would prohibit the family detention center from accepting new families or holding the ones currently housed there.
Rivera said that while it’s important to highlight the experiences of detained people like Astrid, this awareness must also come with action or else these “horror stories” will continue to emerge. Rivera wants to see Pennsylvania DHS acting secretary Miller held accountable for keeping the facility open despite it being unlicensed.
Part of Rivera’s work is training local residents in how to effectively lobby local officials and how to respond to misinformation from government agencies. Miller is of particular importance in this process because the family detention center is controlled by Berks County, which is subject to state regulation, according to Rivera. In part, it is Pennsylvania DHS’ job to regulate the health and safety of facilities for adults and children, whether operated by a private company or by local government. This means that Pennsylvania has the authority to regulate Berks County as the operator of a child residential facility.
Rivera is also urging the public to hold Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, accountable. Wolf has the power to issue an emergency removal order for Berks.
Gov. Wolf has spoken out against the facility. In May of last year, he urged the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security to consider community-based options to serve immigrant families and has said Berks should no longer detain families. However, his efforts have not gone beyond lip service.
“The state is hiding behind this appeal process,” Rivera said. “They have not prioritized the families detained in Berks in any way. The fact that they simply chose not to renew the license, instead of revoking the license, knowing there have been reports of abuse and neglect, knowing they are unlawfully detaining families for prolonged amounts of time, the state isn’t acting with the level of urgency this level of abuse warrants. The governor is not doing anything to make all of this stop. It’s a slap in the face to all of these immigrant families.”
Wolf’s office did not respond to Rewire.News’ interview request.
The organizer said it’s also important to understand that none of what has been happening at Berks is related to the Trump administration. Family detention was brought back by President Obama, Rivera said, and the licensing issue for Berks has played out under a Democratic governor.
“There has been no political will to take full action to stop this abuse,” Rivera said. “But now there’s a different kind of administration in the White House and everything is in a different party’s hands. This could have all been stopped before Trump made any moves to expand the family detention system. Our governor is up for re-election this year and we won’t forget this. This has absolutely been a case of politics over people.”
Over 78,000 people signed a petition demanding the release of Astrid and Arturo, who were eventually released from Berks because Donohoe filed asylum applications on their behalf. With these applications comes a stay of removal. As indigenous K’iche from Guatemala, the father and daughter face institutionalized and widespread discrimination and violence. While their applications are pending, Astrid and Arturo should not be subject to deportation, under international and domestic laws. ICE confirmed to Rewire.News that an immigration judge has re-opened Arturo’s case.
Donohoe picked up Astrid and Arturo from Berks when they were released and the immigration attorney reported that Astrid was visibly happy. While detained, the teen was quiet and reserved, though once in the car, the attorney saw her smile for the first time. So eager was Astrid to get home and eventually re-enroll in school, which was the teen’s primary concern when interviewed by Rewire.News, that she didn’t want to even take a picture in front of the family detention center. She simply wanted to get away from it, Donohoe said.
“When we got home, they lit up,” Donohoe said. “It’s like they didn’t truly believe they were released until they were home. Now they just have to get their day in court. Nothing should happen to them before then, but under this administration, ICE seems to detain first and ask questions later. But we’ll do everything we can to protect them.”
CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify the campaign in which Juntos participated to shut down Berks is not defunct.