22 Migrant Women Held in Pennsylvania Start a Hunger Strike to Protest Detention


Amparo Osorio, left, and Margarita Alberto with their children at the detention center in Leesport, Pa. Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times Margarita Alberto cannot forget the tantrum her 6-year-old son threw several months ago. One afternoon he started shouting that he wanted to leave the Pennsylvania immigration detention center for families, where they have been held since Oct. 28, 2015, “He said, ‘It’s your fault that we’re here, your fault!’” Ms. Alberto said.

And then, she recalled, he tightened the lanyard holding his ID card around his neck, threatening to choke himself if they didn’t get out.
Ms. Alberto and her son, migrants from El Salvador seeking asylum in the United States, are still detained, along with 65 other women and children at the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pa., about 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

“The truth is, I’m in limbo,” Ms. Alberto said in Spanish through a translator during a telephone interview last week from the center. “I don’t know if I’ll be released here or if they’ll return me to my country, which is what I don’t want.”

She is one of 28 women who were denied asylum and who have filed a federal lawsuit seeking new hearings because, they said, their original “credible fear” hearings were conducted improperly. An appeals court rejected their claim on Monday.

On Wednesday Ms. Alberto and 21 other women who call themselves “Madres Berks,” or “Berks Mothers,” restarted a hunger strike they had conducted for 16 days in August. Their action drew renewed attention to the Obama administration’s policy toward migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who have crossed the United States border in order to flee extreme violence.

As a response to an enormous influx of Central Americans in 2014, the Department of Homeland Security began putting mothers and children who crossed the border in detention, hoping that it would discourage others from coming to the United States. But under pressure from advocates, and prompted by a federal court ruling in August 2015, the agency changed course, moving to curtail the prolonged detention of most families seeking asylum.

The family detention center in Berks County is one of three in the United States; the other two are larger and in Texas.

Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary, said last month that a committee would conduct an internal review of the privately run family detention centers by November. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said that the Berks center, run by the county, would be evaluated in a separate review.

When Mr. Johnson said last month that the average length of stay at a family detention center was 20 days, that upset the women in Berks and prompted their hunger strike.

The detention center in Berks County, Pa., about 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia, where the women and children are being held. Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times “I have been here for 320 days,” Amparo Osorio, 26, who came from Honduras and has a 2-year-old son, said on Tuesday. Like all the women detained at Berks who spoke in telephone interviews conducted in Spanish, she asked not to be identified by her complete name, for fear of retaliation by staff members.

“What we want is for our voices to be heard,” Ms. Osorio said.

(3 lawyers and a senator have the time to fight for 22 women that are non citizens with a "story of horrors" in their country yet reproducing children, and no time to fight for citizens. Also have to think ahead @ how many family members all these "asylum" seekers will be allowed to petition for admittance into USA for welfare payments and job taking. Where are the letters @ the American citizen victims of people from this area? there are rapes, killings, drug gangs operating everyday in the USA, many from asylum programs, many from a wide open border. One third of salvadorans live in the USA now.)

Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, sent a letter on Aug. 24 to Mr. Johnson about the prolonged detentions and the conditions at Berks.

“The families detained there have in many cases escaped unspeakable horrors in their countries of origin and are seeking asylum and a better life, ” Mr. Casey wrote. “We can do better than the treatment they are receiving.”

Bridget Cambria, one of three local lawyers who represents the detainees, said there are limited services available to the families at Berks. Children, who range in age from 2 to 16, are divided into two classrooms, but are not allowed to attend an outside school. (The government said it provides five full-time teachers.) The families have access to outdoor recreation, but are prohibited from going outside a wooden fence. They can use the internet, but social media is not allowed. The detainees must clean the center themselves — for which they get paid $1 a day.

The mothers say the monotony is hardest on their children. “We wake up and we see the same walls, the same ceiling, and we think to ourselves, ‘When will this end?’” said Estefani, 16, the oldest child at Berks. She and her sister and their mother, Maria Leiva, who came from El Salvador, had been in detention for 373 days as of Friday.

About a third of the women are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit brought in March by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Department of Homeland Security. The suit contested the legality of their initial asylum interviews. A district court in Philadelphia said that it did not have jurisdiction in the case.

But on Monday, a federal appeals court went even further. It ruled that the women, because they had been apprehended hours after having “surreptitiously” crossed the border, had no right to sue. That, said several legal scholars this week, violated habeas corpus, the basic constitutional right to challenge the legality of imprisonment or detention.

Only suspended in times of rebellion or invasion, that right has been extended to slaves and, more recently, to noncitizen “enemy combatants” held at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.

“It was exactly designed to protect outsiders,” said Eric M. Freedman, a professor at Hofstra Law School who specializes in constitutional law.

“If this decision is left intact, it’s going to be the first time in the history of this country in which noncitizens who enter the United States and are on U.S. soil, are not going to have the opportunity in habeas corpus to challenge their removal orders,” said Lee Gelernt, the lead lawyer arguing the case for the ACLU.

About a third of the women at Berks are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit contesting the legality of their initial asylum interviews. Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times The women are appealing the decision.

They say their acts of civil disobedience — protests and hunger strikes — have provoked tensions with Berks and immigration officials.

Thomas Decker, an immigration field officer, met with the women in August and warned them to suspend the hunger strike because they could become too weakened to take care of their children; he said they could be sent to an “adult jail” without their children, three mothers said.

“We told him, ‘Why would he do that?’” Ms. Leiva, 41, said. “We weren’t criminals or delinquents.”

Khaalid Walls, a spokesman for the immigration agency, said in a statement: “I.C.E. fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference. I.C.E. does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers. I.C.E. explains the negative health effects of not eating to our residents. For their health and safety, I.C.E. closely monitors the food and water intake of those identified as being on a hunger strike."

The women question why they cannot be released and wear ankle bracelets with tracking devices while waiting for their asylum cases to proceed.

Some women who are part of the lawsuit have already been released. Mr. Walls said, adding that “many factors can contribute to the length of a resident’s stay, including but not limited to the current disposition of their immigration cases.”

But Ms. Alberto’s lawyers say the government is retaliating against her for speaking to the media. Last week, the government requested her emergency transfer to a more secure center in Karnes City, Tex., because of her “disruptive” presence at Berks. Her lawyers argued against the move in an appeal filed Wednesday, offering consistently positive conduct reports by the staff as evidence.

Dr. Alan Shapiro, the senior medical director of pediatric programs of the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, has made several visits to Berks to examine the children. In court documents filed last week, he said another move to a detention center would be harmful to Ms. Alberto’s 6-year-old son; he diagnosed the child with chronic Post-traumatic stress disorder, from witnessing violence in El Salvador, the trip across the border and his prolonged detention.

Dr. Shapiro also confirmed that during his evaluation, the boy again simulated choking himself with his ID card lanyard — a “clear sign of stress and anxiety,” he said.

The adverse psychological effects of detention on children have been subject to several reports from Human Rights First, an advocacy group, including one in 2015 on conditions at Berks.

The immigration agency was not able to immediately grant a request for a New York Times reporter to observe the center and to interview the residents on site.

There is yet another complicating matter: The center is operating without a license. In February, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services revoked the county’s license because it applied only to serving children — not their mothers as well. The county appealed and has been allowed to operate while the matter is pending. The next hearing is scheduled for November.