The Berks Mothers’ Christmas Wish: Their Families’ Freedom

Vourvoulias: Asylum-seeking mothers held with their children at a Berks County detention center ask to be spared yet another incarcerated holiday.
Three-year-old D’s letter to Santa and photo. Courtesy of Bridget Cambria.

Three-year-old D’s letter to Santa and photo. Courtesy of Bridget Cambria.

The children wrote to Santa Claus. Their mothers wrote to Gov. Tom Wolf and Ted Dallas (Pennsylvania’s secretary of Human Services). Both sets of letters — full of heartbreaking hope — asked for the same thing: freedom after more than a year of incarceration behind the walls of the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport.

On Monday, advocates of shutting down the controversial family detention center, which houses asylum-seeking families as they await immigration proceedings, rallied in Harrisburg to make sure the mothers’ words were heard in the legislative heart of the commonwealth. After urging the governor to issue an Emergency Removal Order or file an injunction to close the prison before Christmas, some 13 of those gathered blocked traffic in an act of civil disobedience, and were arrested — among them Philadelphians Jasmine Rivera, David Bennion, and Abel Rodriguez.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has the authority to regulate the Berks County Residential Center,” according to a December 11th memo from John Farrell, Anthony Sierzega, and Mariya Tsalkovich of the Stephen and Sandra Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law. “Despite the fact that Berks holds federal detainees, Pennsylvania laws regarding the operation of child residential facilities still apply. PA DHS will not violate federal law (in fact it will comply with federal law set out in the Flores decision) if it chooses to issue an Emergency Removal Order or a Cease and Desist Order.

“A federal appeals court in the Flores case decided that the federal government can only detain minors with parents for more than five days in a secure facility, if it is licensed by the state. Such facilities must comply with state licensing requirements. The Berks’ license, however, is currently invalid because they improperly house children and adults together. Further, under Pennsylvania law, children under the age of 9 and those who have not been committed to a facility by state court order are not permitted to be detained in a secure facility. Berks is violating the requirements of Flores because it continues to detain children in a facility that cannot be licensed by Pennsylvania.”

Those seem like sound legal reasons to shut down the detention center (which has a unsavory, well-documented history of mistreatment and abuse of detainees), but for many of us the moral arguments are even more compelling. There are other ways to monitor those awaiting a court decision about their deportation, including being released to their family and communities under parole-type supervision, and/or electronic monitoring.

Who imprisons children for the choices their parents make? Who keeps them imprisoned for years? Who condemns them to grow up knowing only walls and restriction and isolation?

D is three. He learned to walk and talk while at the detention center. It is, in fact, unlikely that he remembers much of his life outside of the walls that have enclosed him for the past 13 months. His mother brought him to the U.S. with her when she fled threats of kidnapping and gender-based violence in Honduras. “Dear Santa,” his letter reads, “first of all I’d like you to help me go free. I’ve been incarcerated for 416 days. For Christmas I want a remote-control car and a toy cell phone. Many thanks, D.”

It’s clear from the penmanship that D’s letter was written down by an adult. But the wish, the desire to get out from behind the imprisoning walls and back to the embrace of family and community, is echoed in the other lists for Santa written by Berks children old enough to know their letters.

J’s mother fled with him from El Salvador when a gang threatened to kidnap the seven-year-old. His letter to Santa is in his child’s hand, and even more plaintive than D’s:

“Dear Santa,
I want to be free so I can be with my uncle and aunt. I don’t want to go back to my country. And I also want a remote-control plane.”

The Berks mothers’ missives to Pennsylvania officials are no less moving.

“My son and I arrived to United States on October 21, 2015, when he was 22 months old. He will be 3 years of age on December 16 this year,” writes W.O. “It breaks my heart to realize that my child has spent almost half of his life incarcerated. According to the Flores’ Law, he should be liberated long time ago. It is an act of inhumanity to deprive a little child from his freedom and treated as criminal … My baby and I have spent many special days and holidays in jail. This will be his second Christmas in Berks. I am begging you to listen with your hearts in this Christmas time, and to release us from this prison — you have the power to do it and our Lord will give you his blessing for giving to my child the best Christmas gift he can get, our freedom.”

“My name is Celina,” writes another of the mothers. “I am Salvadorean and I have with me my son who is 7 years old. I came to the United States on November 10th 2015, running away from the crime that batters our country. When I arrived here they put me in the ‘freezer‘ and one day in the ‘dog kennel,’ which are places where the temperature is kept very cold. After that, I was taken to a detention center in Dilley, Texas, where I was kept for 18 days. After that, I was transported to [Berks Detention Center] where I am still kept already for more than a year. The situation here has been very difficult for me and for my son … We have been sick, we have been very mistreated, the people who work here mistreat my son and tell him he is a problem because they don’t want him to make any noise, they don’t let him play … Please, I ask the people reading this letter to please listen to your heart and help us get out of this place. This place is not a place for a 7-year-old. It is his dream to be with his family … I wish you a very happy day and thank you for listening to us.”

Carmen from Honduras, who has been detained at Berks for 14 months with her four-year-old son, recounted the routines of her incarcerated child in her letter:

“My son looks through the window of the room and always says to me, ‘I want to leave’ and he says ‘Mommy, let’s go to the park. Mommy, why can’t we leave this place?’… He has spent his birthdays here, Christmas here, 14 months without our families being able to see us, because we are in jail.”

“Freeing the mothers and children is a moral issue and a moral imperative,” says Rev. Sandra Fees of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County. “The families should not spend another holiday in jail. Nor should they spend another day in jail. Nor should they spend another hour in jail. It is long past time for Gov. Wolf to take decisive action. It is long past time for our government officials to act with integrity and human decency.”

Sundrop Carter, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, echoes Fees’s sentiments. “We expect our governor to show leadership by giving these families a chance at freedom,” she says. “The practice of family detention is inhumane and unjust, and in this time of increased hatred toward immigrant communities, Pennsylvania needs to show it will stand on the side of justice and building a welcoming, inclusive, and diverse country.”

During this Christmas season, the voices of those who we’ve incarcerated simply because they followed a beacon of hope and migrated to save their lives become even more poignant:

“It is very sad to know that many people are getting prepared to spend this holiday among family, and are sharing all of the good things that happened to them this 2016. This will sadly be our second Christmas here and we can’t celebrate as others do. Our family has seats at their table for us and these have been awaiting us for 450 days, along with beds, clothing, shoes, food, love and care, all of which is turning to dust …”

Another mother addresses the governor directly in her letter:

“I am from El Salvador and I have a son who is 15 years old; we entered the United States on October 15th, 2015. We have been incarcerated for 425 days. We came escaping violence, criminal groups, seeking help and protection … I know that as a father you will understand why we fight and suffer so that our children will have a good future and that is the reason why I am running away and asking for help in this country, searching for a good future for my son. Because of this I ask you, Governor Tom Wolf, and all of the people who have the power to help us, to help us.”

As adults we grow out of the assurance of unbounded possibility and beneficence that the figure of Santa Claus represents, but we try to keep it alive for our children, particularly for the little ones whose innocence and trust is infinite.

What wouldn’t we do for our children, and give them, if we could?

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Six-year-old B and her letter to Santa. Courtesy of Bridget Cambria

In her letter to Santa, six-year-old B — imprisoned in Berks now for more 15 months — compiled a modest listing of gifts she’d love to receive this year:

“Dear Santa,
for Christmas I want:
headphones from ‘Frozen’
shoes
an iPad
candies
a skateboard…”

And then the last hope, the real one:

“… to leave here with my mommy.”

A child’s wish — wholly removed from the politics and rhetoric that infect our immigration discourse — simple, straightforward and alive with hope in this season of hope.

To ask Governor Wolf to free the Berks Mothers and children by Christmas, call 717-787-2500. To buy Christmas gifts for any of these children, or the others who are detained at Berks, go to Berks Advent to see their letters to Santa and read their backstories.