Written by Naureen Shah
Senior Director of Campaigns
Amnesty International USA
Candles, birthday cake, presents, friends and family. That’s what every parent hopes for their child’s birthday. Instead of festivities, Tomás spent his eighth birthday behind bars—for the second year in a row.
The reason why? Because Tomás and his mom were jailed in the only place in the country where you can hold a child who has never committed a violent crime for over 600 days: Berks County, PA. Tomás and his mom, Natalia, are amongst at least 60 other moms, dads, and children who were locked up after seeking safety here, though they fled from violence in their home countries.
A fair shot never happened for Tomás, whose real name we’re withholding for his safety. After hundreds of days behind bars—where he suffered PTSD and his weight shrank to just 40 pounds—he and his mother were deported without ever having a chance to fully make their case for asylum. They face extreme danger, perhaps even death. We can’t let that happen again.
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL USA LAUNCHES CAMPAIGN TO FREE YOUNG — March 10, 2017
Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) is launching a campaign today urging Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release several families with young children being detained at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania. Four of the 35 children currently detained at Berks – aged three, four, seven and 16 – have been at the Center for over 500 days, despite having pending applications for legal permanent residency.
AIUSA sent a letter to ICE on March 9 requesting that these families be granted parole and is mobilizing its over 1.2 million U.S. members and supporters to call the agency to demand that the families be released.
These four children have spent a significant amount of their lives essentially behind bars. The U.S. cannot continue to treat those fleeing horrific violence like criminals. These families were detained under the Obama administration’s unlawful policy of using detention as deterrence against those fleeing violence and insecurity. Now, in the face of President Trump’s aggressive and inhumane immigration orders, we are deeply concerned for these families and others like them in the U.S. We will fight to ensure that people with asylum claims are given a fair hearing and humane treatment.We must do everything we can to ensure protection for people who are fleeing violence. Margaret Huang, Amnesty International USA executive director
Researchers from Amnesty International have worked closely with attorneys who represent the families held in Berks County, one of three family detention centers operated by the U.S. government. Berks is currently holding 34 families – 15 of them for more than a year – many of whom come from a region known as the Northern Triangle which includes El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Northern Triangle is an area widely recognized for its extreme levels of violence and insecurity, which Amnesty has also documented extensively.
- Three-year-old Josué* has spent over half his life in detention. He learned to walk and talk in confinement. He and his 28-year-old mother Teresa have spent 16 months (500 days, and counting) at Berks. Josué and his mother fled kidnapping threats, physical and sexual assault in Honduras and came to the US seeking asylum. “[My son]…is so young, he was only 22 months when we came and now he’s three years old,” Teresa said in an interview with her lawyers.
- Four-year-old Carlos and his mother, 34-year-old Lorena, fled threats, intimidation and severe and repeated gender-based violence in Honduras. They have spent 16 months in detention.
- Seven-year-old Antonio and his mother Marlene, 24,have one of the longest detention periods at Berks – 550 days and counting. Currently in their 18th month of detention, Marlene recounts how Antonio has already spent two Christmas in detention. “It’s not fair for a child to spend a year and a half in prison”, she said, adding that the impact of prolonged detention is taking a toll on them. “The psychological effect it has on a person, and their kids…we can’t bear it anymore.”
- At age 16, Michael is the oldest child at Berks County. He and his 41-year-old mother Maribel, have been held in detention for nearly 17 months. Michael was targeted for gang recruitment in El Salvador and threatened with death. Following constant threats to the family, both mother and son escaped to the U.S. to seek asylum. Michael wants to be a police officer now.
All four children were granted a Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) in late 2016. With SIJS, a state court has determined that it is not in a minor’s best interest to return to his or her home country because of abuse, abandonment, or neglect by one or both parents. In this instance it was determined that these children “were abandoned, abused, or neglected by [their] father[s]…as such, [their] mother[s] are now the custodial parent, and responsible for all decision regarding their court proceedings, custody and care.” Therefore, it is essential that the mothers and children be released together. Three of the children have already been issued their Employment Authorization Document in January 2017, and one is awaiting his. This enables them to apply for a social security number. All have pending applications for legal permanent residency. Further, their mothers have stays of removal granted by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, while they challenge their removal orders in federal court.
Each of the four families has an unchallenged sponsor in the United States, who is ready and willing to take them in, and ensure their appearance in court. Despite this, their SIJ status, and pending applications for legal permanent residency, ICE officials refuse to release these four children and their mothers from detention.