Detaining Asylum-Seekers in Berks Is a Tragedy; Detaining Their Children Is Immoral

Vourvoulias: Immigrant mothers on hunger strike in Berks Detention Center say they’ve been subjected to "psychological torture."

I’ve been reading and rereading Warsan Shire’s poetry lately. The Somali-British poet was launched to a level of fame poets rarely achieve when Beyoncé extensively quoted her work in the visual album “Lemonade” — words of love, loss and infidelity beautifully suited to the theme of the American superstar’s concept piece.

But the words I’m rereading are about a different kind of love, loss and faithlessness: the love that prompts a mother to take her child on a dangerous boat ride on the Mediterranean or to cling to the external railing of “La Bestia” (the train that crosses from Mexico to the United States). Shire’s are the words of loss experienced by refugee and immigrant; of the faithlessness of countries that make survival so unlikely that its residents must flee, and the faithlessness of receiving countries who treat those immigrants and refugees as if the desire to live were criminal. 


you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

no one burns their palms

under trains

beneath carriages

no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck

feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled

means something more than journey.

(from the poem “Home”)

Early in August, the U.N. tried to hammer out a global agreement on the rights and treatment of immigrants and refugees. “But the plight of these people is so politically contentious,” The New York Times wrote, “that after days of intense negotiations over an international agreement the nations of the world on Tuesday [Aug. 2] adopted a draft that contained virtually no concrete commitments to make their journeys better or safer.”

Eritrea, accused of egregious human rights offenses, didn’t like all the mentions of human rights in the document. Russia didn’t want language saying all countries must be willing to resettle refugees. And us? “The United States suggested a phrase asserting that detention is ‘seldom’ good for children,” rather than one that made clear that detention is “never in the best interests of children,” the NYT reported.

The weasel language was necessary, you see, because the U.S. has the largest immigration detention system in the world, with three centers specifically devoted to detaining children.

“In response to the increasing numbers of women and children requesting asylum at the Southern border in the summer of 2014, the U.S. government massively increased so-called family detention,” writes the organization Human Rights First. “Rather than adopting a refugee protection and child protection approach, the Obama Administration implemented an ‘aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border crossers.’”

Much of this has played out in our backyard — despite Pennsylvania’s great distance from the southern border — thanks to the fact that one of the three facilities U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uses for family detention is in Leesport, Pa., some 70 miles from Philadelphia.

That center — Berks Family Residential Center (BCRC) — has been in the news recently. Twenty-two mothers at the facility went on a hunger strike August 8th, after hearing Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson assert that “the average length of stay at [DHS family detention centers] is 20 days or less.”

The striking mothers and their children (not on hunger strike) at Berks have been detained no less than 60 days and up to 365 days (as of August 8th) and that detention has layered its own set of traumas onto the trauma of the journey toward what they hoped would be asylum.

“On many occasions our children have thought of committing suicide because of the detention and the despair that provokes,” the mothers wrote in the email that announced the hunger strike. “The adolescents say … they’d like to break the window to be able to jump and end this nightmare […] Other children grab their IDs and and press them to their necks and say they’ll kill themselves if they can’t get out of here. The youngest children (2 years old), unable to express what they are feeling, cry.”

Further, the Madres Berks (Berks Mothers) say what has ensued since the hunger strike started has been institutional “psychological torture:”

  • On August 14th their access to the outside patio (as they describe it) was barred and a note on the doors indicated they’d not be allowed outdoors until such time as the hot weather abated. The mothers say that in addition to the outdoors, their access to the gym, downstairs bathrooms, offices of social workers, and the office of their legal counsel were all barred for four days.
  • On August 22nd, the mothers wrote to me to let me know that they were being subjected to intimidation techniques by staff members, including medical personnel and one of the staff psychologists. “They say if we become a ‘danger’ to the facility they’ll send us to Texas [where the two other family detention centers are located], or to an adult jail, and if we are weakened by the hunger strike, they will call the government so they can take our children from us.” As a consequence, the mothers decided to take a week off from the hunger strike, to prevent being so weakened.
  • In an email they made public August 23rd, the mothers (by now reduced to 18) further say that there have been directed threats of immediate deportation from the staff and that they’ve been denied access to legal representatives during meetings.

The thing is, even if we believe these asylum-seekers deserve to be deported (and I don’t), we would have a dreadful time justifying the alleged threats and intimidation, and even more so, the duration of their detention.

A year behind walls in the life of an adult guilty of nothing more than removing their child from “the mouth of a shark” (as Warsan Shire describes it in “Home”) is a tragedy.

A year behind walls in the life of said child is beyond tragic, it is immoral.

Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning columnist with bylines at The Guardian USCity & State, and Strange Horizons. Her novel, Ink, was named one of Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede.