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Immigrant Mothers Stage Hunger Strike for Freedom

Immigrants' advocates demand the release of families detained at Berks County Detention Center. (Make the Road Pennsylvania)
Immigrants' advocates demand the release of families detained at Berks County Detention Center. (Make the Road Pennsylvania)
August 15, 2016

LEESPORT, Pa. — Monday will mark one week since 22 mothers began a hunger strike to demand that they and their children be released from an immigration detention center in the borough of Leesport.

Federal courts have ruled that children, with or without parents, cannot be held in immigration detention for more than 20 days. And the Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, recently claimed the DHS detains families for 20 days on average.

But according to attorney Carol Anne Donohoe, the women on hunger strike at the Berks County Residential Center - and their children - have been held much longer.

"Anywhere from 270 days to a year, including two-year-olds,” Donohoe said. "And in any other case, if they had not been detained, they would have been released to family and been able to fight their cases in court."

The mothers sent an open letter to Secretary Johnson, saying they are ready to sacrifice their lives so their children can have freedom.

DHS said Berks is not a secure facility, but Donohoe said the detainees are treated like prisoners. She said they sleep six to a room, must check in at intervals throughout the day and are not allowed a undisturbed night's sleep.

"Every 15 minutes at night, the guards come into the rooms and shine flashlights into the eyes of the kids and the mothers,” Donohoe said. “So they are woken up continuously throughout the night."

The majority of asylum seekers who cross U.S. borders are released to family members as they fight their cases in court.

According to Donohoe, the majority of the hunger-striking moms have court orders that protect them from deportation while their cases are being resolved. But instead of releasing them, ICE has kept them and their children in detention without explanation.

"These families have other places they can go,” Donohoe said. "There's no need to detain them, and they simply ask to be released and to be able to fight their cases outside."

She said the Berks Center was licensed as a facility for delinquent youth, not families. And in February the state refused to renew the center's operating license. That decision is being appealed.

More information is available at vamosjuntos.org.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA