These asylum-seekers are being forced to raise their kids in immigration 'jails'

An illustration of two children with there mother, hand pointing

When Maria was detained by immigration officers, she was relieved that at least her children would stay safe with her sister in Atlanta after they deported her.

Two months later, on January 2, that small comfort was gone. She stood on her sister’s doorstep at 5 a.m. with armed immigration agents who took her there to identify her children and take them away. It was part of a Department of Homeland Security program to deter Central Americans fleeing violence by coming to the US. Those raids, conducted in Georgia, Virginia, Texas and North Carolina, resulted in the detention of 121 women and children.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights allege the raids were “needlessly aggressive” and “potentially unconstitutional.” For Maria and her children, they were decidedly traumatic.

“I pleaded if they could be given in adoption to my sister,” says Maria, 28, who asked us to use a fictitious name because of the impact this story could have on her children. “They told me I would be deported, but I would be deported with my children.”

Maria and her sons, ages 9 and 4, were detained together for six months and released in the middle of June. They spent the last four months of their detention at the Berks County Residential Center — a facility that lost its license from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services in February — in the quietly picturesque town of Leesport, 75 miles from Philadelphia and almost 800 miles from her family in Atlanta.

They are among thousands of families across the country who have been placed in immigrant family detention centers that mental health experts warn impose anxiety and further trauma on an already vulnerable population of asylum-seekers. After she won an appeal, the government released Maria and her children while her asylum case moves forward. But they continue to deny release to thousands of other migrants like them.

Last summer, a federal judge ordered the release of all families being held in private, secured and unlicensed facilities, including the Pennsylvania center and two others in Texas. Still, those three centers — the only three federal family detention centers — remain open, pending appeals. The Ninth Circuit has upheld that children must be released, but not their parents. The federal government defends the controversial practice, arguing it is minimizing detention times and that detention serves as a deterrent to others who might migrate.

In appealing the ruling, attorneys for the Justice Department wrote “The proposed remedies could heighten the risk of another surge in illegal migration across our Southwest border by Central American families, including by incentivizing adults to bring children with them on their dangerous journey as a means to avoid detention and gain access to the interior of the United States.”

Illustrated map of Central America with El Salvador highlighted in blue

“Mom, why are we in this jail if we haven’t done anything?”

I met Maria and her children while they were detained at Berks in late May. She told me why she fled El Salvador. I was only allowed to bring a notepad and a pen to record her story.

Maria said she was raped when she was a teenager. Her older son, now 9, was conceived by that rape. She received psychological treatment after the experience, but never talked much about it with her family. Two years ago, the man who raped her, the father of the child, threatened to kill them both, she says, if she didn’t give her son to him. The man is a member of the MS-13 gang.

“I was so afraid, but I wasn’t going to let anyone take away what I was able to overcome. I had to learn to love. And they wanted to come and take it away from me,” she says in Spanish.

Maria fled El Salvador with her children in 2014. There wasn’t much time to plan. She was among the 36,000 people in families apprehended at the southern border in Texas that year. She was released with a court date. She told the attorney she hired in Georgia that she wanted to start an asylum case because she was afraid to be sent back to El Salvador. The attorney, she says, requested her removal instead.

Illustration of agents with woman entering home

That was a strategy she didn’t understand. The attorney’s idea was to later ask for a “stay” to her deportation, which would have allowed her to have a temporary work permit. Laura Lunn, her new attorney, says her first attorney should have applied for asylum to begin with.

I visited on a breezy and pleasant afternoon. We talked in a cafeteria-like room at the end of a corridor in the facility. Maria was wearing a long-sleeved black shirt and acid-washed jeans. An employee of Berks sat by the door as we talked. A large window offered a view of the recreation area, where children play.

Maria told me it is stressful to not be able to take care of her children like she normally would. They often refuse to eat and she is not allowed to cook.

“Mom, why are we in this jail if we haven’t done anything?” her children once asked.

They are constantly sick with fever, indigestion and vomiting. They have access to a doctor, but she cannot keep over-the-counter medicine for a stomach ache readily available to give them like she did at home, unless it is prescribed by the doctor there.

Her older son blamed her for deciding to come to the US.

“‘Mom, it’s your fault. My little brother is sick because you brought us here,’” she recalls him saying. “I can’t tell him: ‘Listen, I brought you here because I’m afraid that they’ll kill you or that they’ll separate you from me forever,’” she says. She tries to shield her children from some of the harshest parts of their current situation.

An illustration of a woman with her head down

Berks isn't the worst place she’s been on her journey. She says it's better than it was in the holding cells at a Border Patrol station in Texas. Migrants call those cells hieleras, or coolers, because they are kept extremely cold. She spent three nights in one of those cells with her children and about 70 other families, who huddled together to keep warm.

Her kids get to go to classes in Berks and go on school field trips. If she wants, Maria can take English lessons, but she’s been too depressed to be interested. They allow her children to have toys sent by family and their own clothes. She can move freely within the facility, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and use an “Internet Café” to send emails from shared computers.

But the lack of privacy at Berks was disturbing. Rooms are crowded — at times, she shared her room with two other families. She heard stories of sexual abuse. In 2014, a staff member was convicted for institutionalized sexual assault of a 19-year-old woman from Honduras who was seeking asylum. The case came to light when a 7-year-old girl told a psychologist she was afraid to go to the bathroom after she witnessed the assault in a stall.

Maria was uncomfortable that she couldn't lock her room at night. She didn't sleep well, and neither did her children.

Every 15 minutes at night, the staff at the facility conducts “observational checks” with flashlights.

Illustration of children holding on to their mother with man pointing

“They put the lamp in my eyes,” says her 4 year old. He clings to his mom with one arm and holds a Batman action figure in his other hand. He says he is mostly scared of the fire alarms. When the alarm goes off, “the officers make us get in line and go outside,” he says.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the DHS agency with oversight of detainees, declined to comment on the practice of observational checks because it is part of pending litigation. In a statement presented in court, an ICE official said the “observational checks” were conducted to ensure safety in facilities. Pennsylvania law requires facilities that hold children have staff actually see each child every hour. The light, ICE said, “is not directed at the residents” but shined on the ceiling or floor. They also said they were reviewing the practice to limit it to once per hour.

“The [fire] drills are conducted to ensure the safety and security of the residents and staff,” ICE spokesperson Khaalid Walls said in an emailed statement to PRI.

Illustration of Berks facility, sign in front of building

In detention, Maria suffered from constant headaches. She says the anxiety of not knowing her future is physically painful.

“I keep it together because I pray. If I let myself be depressed, a long time ago I would have thought of committing suicide or leaving my children. But if I’m going through this hell, it is for them,” she says.

The Berks facility has mental health providers whom parents and children can see upon request. Medical personnel see children regularly to evaluate their overall wellbeing, according to the Berks Family Residential Center Resident Handbook.

Maria isn’t unfamiliar with therapy. But she doesn’t trust the personnel at the facility because they work for the government that is trying to deport her.

“They know what is affecting me. It’s being locked up,” she says. “They know they would be sending me directly to my death [if they deport me]. If we are here [in the US] it’s not because this is Wonderland.”

There’s also a language barrier. The mental health expert in the facility doesn’t speak Spanish.

“What use is it to speak with a person that doesn’t even understand us?” Maria says.

About 40 percent of the personnel in Berks speak fluent or conversational Spanish, according to ICE. There are interpreters available for mental health care. At Berks, the interpreters work over the phone and Maria says much is lost in translation. Especially because she doesn’t feel like sharing personally painful details with a third person she cannot even see.

Illustration of trauma (colors and jagged lines) and an MS-13 gang member

Her children don’t care for going to the psychologist either.

Children are more vulnerable than adults to the experience of detention. The experience itself can be traumatic; they go through deprivation and constant fear, says Luis Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas, Austin.

Zayas studies the experiences of undocumented families in the US. He’s met with families and children in the other two family detention centers— in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas — to evaluate their experiences.

“You are constantly being watched, you have to be where you’re supposed to be at the time when you’re supposed to be there and that’s part of the ongoing fear and threat by just the mere existence in a detention center,” he says.

Not all signs of trauma are evident in children while they are in detention. Their behaviors can be subtle. Dr. Alan Shapiro, a senior medical director for Community Pediatric Programs at the Children’s Hospital in the Bronx, says children who are incarcerated often cling to their mothers, refuse to eat or become more confrontational or detached. Some children fall behind in their education. All are signs of “behavioral regressions,” when children unlearn things they used to know. For example, Shapiro explains, a child who was once toilet trained, begins to have accidents.

Shapiro works with youth as the co-founder of the Terra Firma initiative, which provides mental health services to children who have experienced trauma. He opposes the practice of family detention, even for short periods of time.

“They’ve come for safe haven and they are put into detention centers where they have no idea what’s going to happen to them,” he says.

Zayas said there’s no research on the long-lasting impact of family detention experiences on children because there hasn’t been enough access to DHS facilities. It will also require long-range follow-up as children grow into adults. Research generally shows that exposing children to repeated instances of stress could lead to long-term psychological problems. They might become depressed or anxious or even develop chronic illnesses, such as gastro-intestinal problems, asthma or diabetes, he says.

Woman with speech bubble

Haunted by nightmares

Maria’s kids weren’t the only children confined to Berks when I visited. There were more than 80 adults and children in the facility. Among them was Jacquelinne. She celebrated her eighth birthday in May from the confines of the center.

Jacquelinne and her mother, Isamar Sánchez, 23, have been in Berks since February. Sánchez, who was willing to use her real name for this story, raised her daughter as a single mom. She was physically abused by Jacquelinne’s father when she was pregnant. It’s something she doesn’t feel comfortable talking about with personnel at Berks. But she wants her story to be known. 

A woman sitting holds young girl

Isamar Sánchez and her daughter Jacquelinne before they were placed in immigration detention. They have been held at the Berks County Residential Center, which lost its license from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, since February.


Courtesy of Isamar Sánchez

In 2014, she was threated by gang members shortly after she opened a street cart to sell pupusas, a traditional Salvadoran dish. They wanted her to pay a cuota, or fee, for running her business. She paid them a couple of times. But it wasn’t long until her sister’s husband was killed for refusing to pay his own cuota.

“They sent me a message saying that if I didn’t pay the ‘rent’ the same would happen to me and my daughter. They said they knew were she went to school, at what time she got out,” Sánchez says. She couldn’t keep her business going and still pay them, so she hid in another city until her mother put together the money for her to flee to the US with Jacquelinne.

“She’s been through a lot,” she says. Jacquelinne was just 6 when she was asked to hide, feverish, in a warehouse in Mexico with her mom before crossing by foot into Texas.

She was immediately detained by Border Patrol and released on the condition that she check in with ICE 30 days later. She took a bus to Georgia were she had some friends and started to build a new life. Her father — whom she barely knew, but lives in the US — found her an attorney.

But she understood little about the process and could not follow the English used in court. Her attorney withdrew her asylum application and instead asked that she be allowed to stay in the US as a victim of torture. She was ordered deported by the judge without receiving an explanation of what was going on, according to court documents in a civil suit.

Two years after she arrived in the US, ICE came to take the Sánchezes away from their home in Virginia to be deported. Jacqueline shut the door to her mother’s room, hoping to stop the officers as they searched the house.

“She held me and told me, ‘Mom, I don’t want to go.’ She trembled and trembled. I told her everything would be all right, but she wouldn’t stop trembling,” says Sánchez.

Things didn’t get easier when they arrived at Berks. Since being detained, Sánchez says her daughter has changed. She’s turned serious and doesn’t want to play much. She is not doing well in her classes. Sánchez worries it is because of all the things she’s seen.

A couple of days after she arrived in Berks, Sánchez developed a painful cyst on her lower back. It took her three visits with medical personnel until they took her to the emergency room at a nearby hospital. A surgeon there said she needed an operation. It took another three months for her to get the operation.

“When she cried, I cried with her because I felt sorry,” says Jacquelinne in Spanish. She is her mother’s interpreter for everything, including her recent health consultations.

Sánchez says there is a chapel at Berks where she sometimes goes. But she says staff members interrupted her prayers abruptly to tell her it was time to leave.

Dealing with the trauma that many asylum-seekers are fleeing is difficult. But coping with the process of escaping that violence is also a huge hurdle, says Claudette Antuña, a bilingual forensic evaluator and clinical social worker who has a private practice in the state of Washington. She provides pro-bono forensic evaluations and expert testimony in immigration court for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

“It’s a very demeaning experience, but you face it because you think that you’ll eventually be safe,” says Antuña. “Things are pretty terrible when you live in fear that at any moment you could be dead and your kids would have nobody to take care of them.”

Researchers from the University of Texas conducted a mental health assessment of 26 women and children held in detention in Dilley in July 2015. They found that half of the participants presented signs of posttraumatic stress disorder. Some experienced high levels of anxiety and depression.

“Sometimes I tell [my daughter], ‘I can’t take this anymore.’ But she says she doesn’t want to go back to El Salvador.”

“Those mothers were already living in community violence. Many of those women probably experienced some level of sexual assault or sexual abuse in their lifetime,” says Claire Thomas-Duckwitz, who was part of the team of researchers. She’s a licensed psychologist and adjunct faculty at the University of Northern Colorado.

“When you’re just layering all of these events, one on top of the other, these women are not going to experience being detained the same way as somebody who has not experienced trauma would experience it,” she says.

Being in a state of limbo in terms of their future causes the parents to become anxious, a feeling they could transmit to their children, Antuña says. “The children then begin to blame the mother for the situation that they are in.”

Sánchez goes to bed every night at Berks thinking about the strangers who threatened her in El Salvador. She sees them repeatedly in her nightmares. They follow her onto a bus as she comes back from grocery shopping. They have guns.

“Sometimes I tell [my daughter], ‘I can’t take this anymore.’ But she says she doesn’t want to go back to El Salvador.”

Jacquelinne blurts out as her mother is speaking:“Allá en El Salvador están matando a toda la gente. Mataron a un primo mío. Casi no me gusta ese lugar.” “There in El Salvador they are killing everybody. They killed a cousin of mine. I really don’t like that place.”

“They are prisons.”

When minor children arrive alone in the US, they are placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which places them with government and private child welfare agencies. But if they arrive with their parents, like Jacquelinne and Maria’s children, they are often placed in detention. Two of the three family detention centers are run by private prison companies. The South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley is run by the Corrections Corporation of America and Karnes County Residential Center by the GEO Group. The Berks facility is run by Berks County.

A court document

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement says that the the Berks Family Residential Center Resident is not a secure facility because families are free to leave. In a statement presented in court this June, an assistant field office director for ICE explained the government's reasoning. Read the declaration in full here.

A year ago, federal judge Dolly Gee ruled that family detention facilities run by private and unlicensed corporations were a violation of the settlement of a 1997 class-action lawsuit.

Flores v. Holder says that unaccompanied children who are detained should be released promptly to a family member. Judge Gee determined that should hold true for children detained with their parents. Both should be released if the parent doesn’t pose a national security or flight risk. The judge also said that children shouldn’t be held in unlicensed, secured facilities — places like Berks, where detainees are not free to come and go. A three-judge panel in the 9th Circuit US Court of Appeals agreed that children must be released, but said the Flores settlement does not require their parents to be released as well (PDF).

ICE says Berks is not a secure facility because families are free to leave. In a statement presented in court this June, Joshua G. Reid an assistant field office director for ICE in Pennsylvania said: “There are no physical impediments to a resident departing the facility. If a resident were to leave BFRC without authorization, however, they would be considered a fugitive and subsequently may be arrested by ICE officers, depending on the circumstances of their departure and their individual case.”

The Berks County Residential Center is the oldest of all the ICE family detention facilities; it opened in March 2001 and is the smallest with space for 96 beds. ICE said in a statement that the facility will continue to operate while Berks County appeals to have its license reinstated.

Shapiro met with 23 parents and children at the Berks facility in August 2015, as part of an effort by the organization Human Rights First. He observed an absence of “services that were compassionate and culturally sensitive to their needs.”

There was no screening process that was sensitive to the needs of girls and women who might have experienced sexual or domestic violence or some other form of trauma, he says.

“We’re saying women and children who really pose no threat at all are put into detention for long periods of time, they’re put into places that don’t have child welfare expertise, so the needs of the children and their families are not met,” says Shapiro.

DHS created the Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers committee last July in an effort to initiate reforms in the centers, including in the area of mental health. ICE said in a briefing to the committee that they screen everyone who arrives in their facilities for mental health within the first 12 hours and they look specifically into potential sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Shapiro says that’s not enough. He believes detainees have to be re-evaluated often because of how difficult it could be for these women to open up about their experiences.

“It’s something we can’t expect people in detention to be able to do. They need to be in a safe environment, where it’s controlled and where there is a sense that there’s safety and trust before they can start talking about the trauma that they sustained,” he says.

DHS secretary Jeh Johnson explained the changes they are making in a statement last September: “We are transitioning our family residential center facilities into processing centers where individuals can be interviewed and screened rather than detained for a prolonged period of time.” ICE declined our request for information about the average length of stay for families in detention because of pending litigation in the Flores case.

But experts like Shapiro argue that even a short-term stay can have detrimental effects for children. And scholars like Zayas don’t have faith in reform. They want family detention to end all together.

“There’s no way that the conditions, the way they are now, are suitable,” says Zayas. “They are prisons.”

Waiting to be released — or sent back to El Salvador

Sánchez met Maria and her children while they were both in the midst of being deported. In January 2016, ICE put them on a flight back to El Salvador. But both families were taken off the plane during a layover after an immigration attorney from the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project successfully lobbied the Board of Immigration Appeals to review their cases. They both were found to have received ineffective representation from their original attorneys.

ICE told PRI in an email on June 8 that neither Sánchez nor Maria would be released from detention during the review.

“Both individuals are ICE enforcement priorities as recent border entrants and as a result of being ordered removed by an immigration judge after January, 2014. They will remain in ICE custody pending the outcome of their immigration cases,” ICE said in a statement.

The Obama administration outlined these enforcement priorities in a November 2014 memo known as PEP, or “Priority Enforcement Program.” The memo says recently arrived undocumented immigrants are priorities for detention and deportation.

The next day, on June 9, ICE gave an updated statement about Maria’s case.

“On June 9, the BIA sustained her appeal and remanded her case back to the lower court. After conducting a comprehensive review of her case, she has been enrolled into ICE’s alternatives to detention program while her case is before the court.”

Maria was released from Berks on June 10, 15 days after I met with her at the Berks facility. She now has the chance to apply for asylum that she didn’t have before. In the meantime, she is spending time with her two children as they prepare to go back to school. Being released “was a blessing” she says over the phone, but she’s still in shock over what happened.

Sánchez’s appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals was denied. Her attorneys filed a motion to reconsider — that means she and Jacquelinne will remain at Berks until there’s a new decision. 

Logo for Radio Biligue
Hear Isamar Sánchez in her own words, in Valeria Fernández's report in Spanish for Radio Bilingue.

Both women are part of a civil lawsuit filed against DHS in May 2016. The lawsuit says the “prolonged detention has aggravated their symptoms of trauma” and that they have not been provided with appropriate mental health services, medical care, acculturation, adaptation services and a reasonable right to privacy.

Children at Berks do occasionally get a chance to leave the facility. When I met her in May, Jacquelinne was returning from a supervised field trip to see Hershey’s chocolate factory. She arrived in the cafeteria with a smile on her face and a chocolate bar in her hand.

But Jacquelinne was not interested in talking about her trip. She listened eagerly to her mother, who says her daughter wants to be a doctor and an attorney to stop families from being deported.

Through the window behind them, five children with helmets rode their bicycles through a pathway in the center’s outdoor park, which is surrounded by a wooden fence. A toddler stumbled to avoid them as a few mothers on rocking chairs kept watched from under the shade of pine trees.

“Sometimes we go out there and I wonder, ‘When will I be free?’” says Sánchez. “We go outside for a little bit and we don’t feel well because we have to come back inside.”

Her mother’s changing mood has not been lost on Jacquelinne. Sánchez struggles to hide her worry that they could be deported to El Salvador at any minute.

“We’re here as a punishment because we came in to this side seeking protection,” she says during a phone call from the center a week later. “We came seeking help, looking for shelter for our children.”

The sign outside Berks County Residential Center

Isamar Sánchez and her daughter Jacquelinne have been detained at Berks County Residential Center since February. Her attorneys are trying to get their case for asylum heard in court, but until the legal proceedings are over, ICE says they will continue to detain them.


Valeria Fernández

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