Mothers detained in a Pennsylvania family immigrant facility ― some for more than a year ― vow to continue a hunger strike that risks their health and potential deportation to what they say is serious danger in their native countries.
Many also have joined a high-stakes legal battle seeking a declaration that their constitutional rights were violated and that they should be entitled to a new asylum hearing. If federal courts reject their claims, some immigrants in detention will have one less avenue to challenge how the government handles their removal proceedings.
Twenty-two women are participating in the hunger strike at Berks County Family Residential Center, according to attorneys and activists. Immigration and Customs Enforcement put the total at 18. The women began the action Aug. 8 in protest of their long-term detention with their children.
“WE WILL GET OUT ALIVE OR DEAD,” the women wrote in an open letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
The women did not list their names, saying they feared retaliation, but included the amount of time they had been in detention and the ages of their children. Four mothers have been detained with their children for more than a year, and six have been held for more than 300 days, according to the letter. The children range in age from 2 to 16.
The hunger strikers are part of an often overlooked piece of the family immigrant detention system. The Berks facility holds up to about 100 people and predates two much larger federal centers created after an influx of women and children apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014.
Those facilities, Karnes County Residential Center and South Texas Family Residential Center, have held thousands of women and children, some for lengthy periods. But legal challenges and political pressure led the Obama administration to try to speed up the time frame for families remaining in detention. Johnson told reporters this month that most women and children in family facilities were detained for 20 days or less.
The women in Berks are allowed to use the internet and follow the news, one of them said in a phone interview. When they saw Johnson’s comments, which were highlighted by immigrant rights advocates, they decided to begin a hunger strike to call attention to their long-term detention, she said.
“I would like to have a meeting with Jeh Johnson face to face and ask him why he’s saying the things that he’s saying when I have been here for almost a year,” the woman, who asked not to be identified by name, said through an interpreter.
She said the strikers would continue to refuse to eat as long as necessary to get out of detention.
“There is no reason why these women and young children should be in detention for this long.”
They received support on Monday from protesters on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where President Barack Obama is vacationing with his family. The activists called for Berks to be closed.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said in a statement on Tuesday that 18 women at Berks had refused food for 72 hours or more. The agency “takes very seriously the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care and we continue to monitor the situation,” the statement said.
ICE didn’t comment on individual women’s cases, but said there are many factors that contribute to the length of time a person is detained.
Many, but not all, of the women involved in the hunger strike are also part of a shared legal battle over their deportation orders. These women were placed into what the government calls expedited removal proceedings at the border, and were not given asylum. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, they filed petitions in federal court ― combined in a case called Castro v. DHS ― saying they should receive new asylum screenings due to legal errors in their previous reviews.
The legal fight has turned to whether the women have the constitutional right to appeal at all. The government has argued that habeas corpus, or the right to challenge illegal imprisonment, does not apply to these families and that they cannot turn to federal courts for relief.
A federal judge sided with the government in February. The women appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit and are awaiting a ruling.
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, said non-citizens on U.S. soil have always been able to access the courts to challenge the legality of their deportation. The case does not require that the women be released, but Gelernt and other attorneys argue they should be let out as they await a decision.
“There is no reason why these women and young children should be in detention for this long,” Gelernt said in an email. “The Administration is seemingly refusing to release them simply because they brought a constitutional test case. We hope the Administration will do the right thing and release them while the case works its way through the courts.”
Cristian Farias contributed reporting.