Accompanying Refugees at Berks Family Detention Center

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I don’t understand all the paperwork, but I trust God and I trust my lawyer will do a good job representing me.

The translated statement above came at the conclusion of an emotional interview with a mother and her nine-year-old son at the Berks Family Detention Center on June 22. Her words of faith have been replaying in my head since leaving the center.  In fact, I have been recalling the entire conversation from various perspectives.

As an attorney, I know what it is like to have earned a client’s trust and what a tremendous responsibility that can be. I have experienced sleepless nights over cases in normal circumstances (not involving detention), because I understood how much a successful outcome meant to the client, their family, and their employer. The enormous pressure of having a client with a young child in detention is anxiety- and insomnia-inducing, at best.  But just as the mother has placed her faith in God, attorneys and advocates may learn to do the same – trust that God will help us to use our time, talents, and treasures to do the best that we can.

The circumstances and conditions under which this mother and her son are living is not normal with respect to the parent-child relationship. Nor is it normal from the perspective of the client-attorney relationship. In fact, it completely unnatural and it is so disturbing that our mere presence and proximity to this facility has indelibly left its mark on us.

It is not normal to live in detention when one has not committed a crime – the situation for every single family at Berks. It is not normal for a mother to feel so much fear that it forces her to contemplate taking herself and her child into the vast insecurity of the unknown. It is not normal for a mother and her child to have survived a long and dangerous journey seeking refuge to be treated as a criminal, even subhuman, upon arrival to one of the greatest nations in the world.  

If this were just one case, we would call it an anomaly or a mistake. Unfortunately, this is not just one case and this is no mistake – this is a very deliberate practice based on bad policy. At Berks there were 89 people who each had stories very similar to the mother and son that we met with: they have experienced extreme trauma both before and after they reached the U.S.; they have been at Berks for over a year; they are confused about the process and they don’t know when or how their case will be resolved.

Despite all of this, they also say, in various ways and various languages, that they trust in God, that they have faith.

Berks, a 10-acre campus in the middle of a lush, green Pennsylvania landscape, is not a torture chamber, there is no razor wire or guards with weapons. It is neither appallingly dirty or crumbling at the foundation, nor is it a facility that is stretched thin on resources (at least for now). During our visit, we were told that Berks is getting ready to receive double the number of residents it currently houses – that would mean approximately 80 families would be housed there.  They are just finishing up with some construction and licensing but otherwise ready to take on more.

A day in the life at Berks?  We left Maryland at about 5 a.m. to arrive at Berks around 8 a.m. The sun was rising in the sky, and birds were chirping. The lawn, trees, and bushes around the facility were beautiful shades of green and laden with dew. There were two large planters outside of the Visitor’s front door and we noticed that one of the large planters had a very small crack in it from which a long and beautiful petunia had made its way and was growing – by all accounts thriving despite the chokehold around its main stem. That petunia was a symbol that reflected the truth of the lives held inside.

Upon arrival I noticed two things: a single woman situated awkwardly at an outside spigot and a growing group of young and energetic individuals with colorful flags. The woman was kind; she greeted us with a smile and offered information about the process for checking in. She was filling up water balloons. The group with the rainbow flags was getting organized, finding its way to the right place on the lawn across from the parking lot. Looking past the building to the adjoining field (and honestly looking for the obvious or hidden fences), we noticed a soccer field with a fire hydrant awkwardly in the middle and a basketball court without backboards and hoops – imperfect, but evidence of someone’s efforts. As the morning progressed, we watched as a bounce-house and buckets of water were added to the field. Clearly, there was a field day being set up, but we wondered about the motivations and coincidence of it all.

The official part of our visit started with a meeting with officials from ICE, IHSC, and Berks County, who advised us of their roles and responsibilities in managing the facility and its residents. We toured the facility, including the initial intake rooms where new residents are processed and medically screened. We were able to see the two attorney client rooms, visitation rooms, and the “courtroom” where hearings are conducted via video conferencing. We saw the playgrounds, basketball court, bikes, and the recreational and physical fitness equipment – they even had kettlebells (Russian weights that look like cannon balls with handles) for all the residents who wanted to improve their muscle tone.

We also heard from the County official about the many offsite visits and field trips they offered to the child residents, over half of the population there. We were advised that there is at least one offsite visit arranged each week for the children that included age-appropriate activities like baseball games, visits to the local mall, petting zoo, library, and a yearly field trip to Knoebels, a local amusement park. I wasn’t surprised to hear that the participation rate amongst the young residents was approximately 90 percent. The participation rate in structured activities geared toward the adult residents was much lower. We saw the shared living spaces that had televisions, computers, ping-pong tables, and a large refrigerator stocked to the top with white milk.

There were a few odd things along the tour that I noted, some things that didn’t rest well with me.

One of the first things that stood out to me was the lack of diversity of the staff at the facility. During our briefing and tour we were told that the county counselors and case workers (the folks with the blue polo shirts) had to be present at all times. The team that we observed was mainly Caucasian and male.

Another thing that stood out to me was the starkness in the resident’s rooms – there were no pictures, personal items, or decorations. I also observed that there appeared to be no actual books in the law library and the general library seemed to be devoid of children’s materials in non-English languages.

During the tour, we learned that there were 46 children residing at Berks and that population of children of varying ages was divided into two classrooms. We visited one of the classrooms, which was empty because of the field day activities outside, and it broke my heart. I saw children’s names on the desks, not unlike the names of the children in my own son’s classroom. It brought home the fact that children are living in detention for so long that they may graduate from one classroom to the next.

The other thing that I observed in the classroom was the bathroom at the front of the class. The county official leading the tour described the in-classroom bathroom as something of great convenience. My son is six and is in Kindergarten, so I could understand that may be the case for children with developing bladders. What I could not understand is why the bathroom did not have a door. All it had was a three-quarter-length shower curtain – with a large open space at the bottom. All I could think of was the word dignity. It immediately struck me as one of the many ways the children living in this relatively clean facility were treated with respect.

From an outsiders’ perspective, the picture that was being painted by our hosts was that this facility was a beautiful, shining example of how well our government treats immigrant families in detention. Then, we met with residents living there and heard their stories. The women, men, and children that courageously met with us and allowed us to interview them shared their fears and experiences living under these conditions. They did not have to wear shackles to be prisoners. There need not be the presence of armed guards to feel intimated. Even a clean facility with linens on the beds and seemingly ample food for the residents to eat can be inhumane – stripping women, mothers of their dignity and disempowering them as parents. Even a schoolroom with lots of colorful posters and resources can be a place where great shame and humiliation are felt.

When we asked about day-to-day life at the facility, we heard a lot more about the census that is taken and the flashlights that are shone on the residents every 15 minutes during the night to confirm that they are alive. Can you imagine the sleep deprivation?

 We heard about how the food causes digestive issues particularly amongst the children – constipation and upset stomachs appear to be very common there. This was something that really resonated with me – no doubt that children who were offered pasteurized cow’s milk and sweet apple juice from a fountain to drink were going to have digestive issues. No doubt that anyone who was forced to use a toilet that did not have a door or any semblance of privacy may suffer from constipation.

It is difficult to comprehend how these brave mothers, women who were coping with the trauma of their journey to the U.S., separation from their families (sometimes their other children), dealing with the anxiety of being in detention with their children, lacking the power to free themselves and their children, stripped of their ability to truly parent and protect their child, uncertain of their future, and completely and utterly sleep-deprived were able to formulate and aid in their own immigration case.

The entire drive home I pondered their circumstances, prayed for the women and children and staff of the facility. I thought, how could it be that these women are still hanging on? Then the answer appeared before me just as it has so many times before: they have faith. 

And my faith makes me certain that God is very near to these families. I also know that God is calling us to witness their suffering, to accompany them during their detention, to raise them up and tell our government that this is no way to welcome the stranger amongst us, to enlighten those who think that material items can somehow make up for a lack of freedom, and to fight until they are free.

Jill Marie Bussey is Advocacy Attorney at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC)

Source: Catholic Charities