Twenty-two mothers who have been interned with their children for up to a year in a for-profit immigration detention facility entered the ninth day of a hunger strike on Wednesday. Neither the mothers nor their children have committed any crimes, nor have they been charged with any. They have no idea when they will be released. Advocates and attorneys representing the women tell The Nation that their children are suffering, they feel that they’ve been lost in the system and their desire for freedom has become desperate.
The women and their children are housed six to a room at the Berks County Family Detention Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. They share a bathroom with a short curtain but no door. They’re awoken at 6:30 every morning for the first of several mandatory check-ins. During the night, a guard shines a flashlight into their eyes every 15 minutes. Most of them are badly sleep deprived. Many of their kids are showing symptoms of early childhood trauma and other developmental problems; some have stopped growing. The youngest detainee at Berks is 2 years old, and has spent around half of his life in detention. Like the other children, he isn’t allowed to sleep in his mother’s bed at night.
They’re refugees who fled brutal violence in Central America and are now caught in a legal limbo. They were denied asylum after a cursory interview at the border and are subject to deportation. But attorneys representing them say that the screenings they went through at the border were legally flawed. The Obama administration claims that they have no right to appeal the decisions—a stark departure from longstanding legal precedent. They’re now being detained, indefinitely, while a legal challenge works its way through federal courts.
There’s no reason to hold them while that process plays out; according to a 2009 study by Human Rights First, asylum seekers under supervised release almost always show up for their hearings. Most are never put into the detention system in the first place; advocates say those who ended up at Berks were the tragic winners of a “wheel of misfortune.”
An independent psychological evaluation provided to The Nation by an attorney representing several of the detainees found that one typical 6-year-old boy at Berks “is suffering from PTSD, as evidenced by symptoms of anxious avoidance, hyperarousal, dysregulation, loss of appetite, and constant fear and worry.”
PTSD was caused by a number of traumatic experiences when he was living in El Salvador, which has been exacerbated by a number of distressing experiences that have occurred during his prolonged detention in the United States.… As his stay in detention has lengthened, his symptoms have escalated and become chronic in nature, as a direct result of his experiences there and the lack of appropriate mental health intervention.
Last year, a study of detained families—and those recently released from detention—in Texas found that similar problems were widespread. The researchers wrote that the stress of being locked up can have long-term adverse effects on both the physical and mental health of detainees, and that “children are at particular risk for developing long-term problems.”