Carmen couldn’t sleep through the night for two years.
She hoped she would get rest after spending long days at the Berks County immigration detention center in Lessport, Pennsylvania. But rest never came for the 39-year-old mom from Honduras. Every 15 minutes, the guards would point their flashlights directly in their faces, confirming that the families were still there even though they had nowhere else to go.
The light would wake up everyone, including her toddler son. The cycle was agonizing, and it went on for nearly two years.
Carmen, who is being referred to by a pseudonym because she is an asylee and her family case remains pending, is one of the thousands of migrants who has been held in family detention.
The policy began under the Obama administration in 2014, in response to an increase in Central American families seeking asylum at the border. The practice only expanded under former President Donald Trump, who cracked down on immigration with a series of harsh policies. Women and children were held in prison-like facilities for an indefinite period of time in an attempt to deter families from seeking asylum at the southern border of the U.S.
President Joe Biden ended family detention shortly after taking office, but The New York Times reported in March that the administration was considering reinstating the practice as Title 42 ― the Trump-era policy that has allowed border authorities to swiftly expel migrants under the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic — is set to expire next week.
The White House hasn’t denied the report, even as Democrats have condemned the idea and vocally criticized Biden.
“I’m not saying it’s being considered. ... I’m not saying it is not,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said after the report came out.
Immigration rights activists have blasted the White House for considering reinstating the policy, saying that the most vulnerable immigrants, including women and children, are at risk. Inadequate medical care, access to legal resources, and maltreatment were all reported at various ICE facilities across the country. Numerous studies have also demonstrated that detention poses a serious threat to an individual’s mental health and can have devastating effects especially on young children.
Like countless asylum seekers, Carmen’s life was deeply disrupted by family detention. She fled her home country of Honduras in 2015, escaping an abusive partner. Even after they separated, he would show up to her house unannounced and bring over men who were dangerous. She felt unsafe in her own home.
Carmen took her son, who was 3 years old at the time, and fled northbound, hoping to claim asylum in the United States. Together, they made the arduous journey, mostly on foot, through Guatemala and Mexico until they reached Texas.
When Carmen arrived in October 2015, she was immediately apprehended by border patrol and taken to Karnes County immigration center, one of the three detention centers overseen by ICE that was used exclusively to hold migrant parents and their children. She and her son were held for 22 days, until they were transferred to Berks detention center in Pennsylvania, where they were detained for 21 months.
By 2016, reports of human rights abuses at Berks had begun to surface. That April, a 40-year-old guard was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old Honduran woman he oversaw at the facility. In September, 22 women went on a hunger strike to protest their prolonged detentions.
But things only got worse.
“When we realized Trump was president, we lost all hope,” Carmen said. “We realized that things were even going to get more difficult.”
The new administration enacted harsh anti-immigration policies, including holding families beyond the legal limit of 20 days and separating families.
Carmen worked in the kitchen at Berks, washing dishes for an hour or two a day. She crocheted, partook in group prayers, and when allowed, she took her son out into the yard for the maximum limit of 30 minutes a day. They ate the same meals every day: chicken, pasta, salad or ham.
“I liked staying busy in order to not think about what was happening, because if you do that, then your mind betrays you,” she said.
The children were perplexed and scared, Carmen said. Her son began asking questions about why they were being held. Carmen tried to comfort him, explaining that it was part of the process to enter the U.S. ― an answer she was only half convinced herself.
“It’s hard enough having to go through that situation,” she said. “But it’s even harder having to explain to your children why they are in the same situation, especially when detention is prolonged for such a long time.”
“I felt that I was in prison without having committed a crime,” she added. “I had not found what I came looking for.”
She made friends with other mothers and their children, including some who were deported abruptly. She never knew what her own fate would be.
“When you arrive here, you come with fear, and you come scared. And when you end up in family detention, it’s just very difficult,” she said.
With the help of a legal nonprofit called Aldea - The People’s Justice Center, Carmen and her son were finally released in August 2017. Once outside, she dropped down to her knees.
“I didn’t know whether to scream or cry,” she said. “But it was the best day of my life.”
Carmen has since found some sort of normalcy. A sponsor took her in immediately after she was released and helped her find food and shelter. She currently lives in Indianapolis, with a new and loving partner and her three children. Her children are all enrolled in school. She’s still looking for stable work in order to support them.
But after nearly six years, the memories haunt her and her son. He brings up their time at Berks sometimes, telling her he never wants to return. The sight of a police car continues to terrify him.
“Her story is exemplary of the experiences that other families have had because it highlights the trauma and the difficulty of being a parent in this scenario,” said Adriana Zambrano, the programs coordinator at Aldea. “Families and asylum seekers are the most vulnerable immigrants at this time, and they are being used as a very ineffective deterrent.”
To bring back family detention “would just seem like a political game, and where families and children are the ones that are always losing,” Zambrano said.
Parents held in detention have to worry about the effects on their children, including the lack of nutritious foods and space for them to move freely, said Javier Hidalgo, the director of pre-removal services at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Service.
“Trauma compounds daily on the children and the parents,” he said. “We’ve watched them deteriorate, or become more withdrawn. We’ve seen children who are very vocal and are starting to become less vocal and more babyish, or infantile.”
Family detention wouldn’t always mean families were held together, he added, noting that fathers or grandparents would often be separated from their children.
“This administration, and whatever administration is in place, needs to take a hard look at what’s really behind the desire to [continue with family detention],” Hidalgo said.
Carmen still keeps in touch with other mothers whom she met during her time at Berks. Some still can’t talk about their time there. One of her friends, a mother from El Salvador, never made it to the U.S. She was deported one month before Carmen was released. She had to be checked into a mental institution because of the confinement, said Carmen.
“No family should ever have to go through that. It’s very psychologically damaging,” Carmen said. “We are a family seeking protection. We are seeking to find refuge in a safer place. The main reason is safety.”