By Marta Guttenberg
Around 50 people, including immigrant community members, Shut Down Berks Coalition activists, and elected Pennsylvania State Representatives Chris Rabb and Joseph Hohenstein, took part in an emergency rally outside Philadelphia’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office on Nov. 25.
Twenty-three Black and Brown families, including 28 children, had come to the U.S. seeking asylum and family reunification. Instead, they were imprisoned by ICE. Some are being held at the Berks Family Detention Center in Leesport, in nearby Bucks County.
Having survived terrible events in their countries of origin, they are now experiencing incarceration, medical neglect and abuse, and violations of their human rights here in the U.S. ICE’s response during the COVID-19 pandemic has been not to release families from detention, as recommended by public health officers. Instead, it is rushing deportations of families back into danger, despite open asylum cases and nearby sponsors.
On Nov. 24, just two days before the Thanksgiving holiday, ICE had hastily deported several more Haitian families. It had already deported 1,300 families to Haiti in October, on what immigration advocates called “death flights.”
Statements from some of the children inside the facility were read to the crowd. Eleven-year-old Juan David wrote: “I am detained with my mom. The 27th of this month we will complete 15 months of detention. They asked me why I am afraid to return to my country. I am afraid that the gangsters will hurt me, that they will kill me and my mom. That’s why I ask God to soften the hearts of the asylum officers and that I can go live with my aunt and uncle in New York. … Here I always have a headache and anxiety.”
Jhoselyn, also 11, and his sisters Zoe, 8, and Emily, 6, wrote: “We have been locked up here for 11 months already, we spent our birthdays here and it’s very hard. We don’t want to spend Christmas locked up here in this center. We can’t play freely or run because the guards yell at us not to. … Please, I don’t want them to separate us. My sisters and I can’t go back to Ecuador either.”
Katherin, 14, stated: “Our lives are also in danger because of so many people who are infected with COVID-19. It hurts me to see that many kids like me are locked up even more because of COVID-19. They spend more time locked up in their rooms. Please, I implore you, I beg you, help us leave this place as soon as possible.”
Berks Family Detention Center is a state-chartered institution. ICE leases the facility from the county for uses that violate the charter. However, the governor has not revoked the charter. County officials claim they cannot do without the income.
Speakers demanded that the families be released together from illegal detention and pandemic risk to relatives or sponsors.
Want to help? Contact Simona Flores, director of ICE’s enforcement and removal operations in the Philadelphia office at 214-918-4822. Tell her: Don’t deport the 28.
WW Photo: Joe Piette