What it's like here near Reading, PA
And just like that -- it's out of New York City and here at Berks Detention Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, a few hours south. Leesport is 15 minutes outside of Reading, PA. According to the 2010 census, Reading has the highest share of citizens living in poverty in the nation. Like many other cities in the United States, Reading in its prime was a symbol of American prosperity: the railroad industry was booming here. (Remember the Reading Railroad Company square on the Monopoly board?).
But from the 1940s to 1970s, Reading had seen a sharp decline in its once prosperous days. These days, the city of Reading is organizing itself towards urban renewal -- with many new residents coming from no-longer-affordable neighborhoods in New York City.
Driving towards greater Reading, I noticed a large number of Trump for President signs lining the streets and front yards. As this article in The Atlantic, Why Are Democrats in Western Pennsylvania Are Voting Trump, I very much get the visceral, palpable sense that a number of residents here feel forgotten about -- feeling like the punchline to jokes about being part of the uneducated, lower working class.
And amidst this, there is the Berks Residential Detention Center. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has used the Berks detention facility mainly to detain mothers and children previously held in the family detention centers in South Texas (Dilley & Karnes City). These mothers and children are fleeing intolerable conditions in their home countries, including domestic violence and gang-related dangers. Many of these women, fathers, and children are in jeopardy of being deported because they do not have access to an attorney. Berks is also described as a "deportation mill" because there are not enough attorneys on the ground to represent those detained, most of whom qualify for asylum.
First impressions of the Berks Detention Center
Driving to the Berks Detention Center, it feels -- creepy, as I've already remarked to my colleagues. The fall foliage is in full swing here and the drive to the center is actually a very pretty one -- a far cry from the barren, isolated locations of the Dilley and Karnes City family detention centers, where I was earlier this spring.
I drive along the rolling hills and make a left hand turn and see the sign that is featured at the top of this post. The facility is a series of brick buildings, and there is even a soccer field where I see young children playing -- with no barbed wire fence or guards patrolling around.
I firmly believe that if anyone were to walk around the area and observe this facility, they would be shocked at what goes on behind these doors -- that it is a long-term detention center.
Berks is where the longer-term detention cases go after mothers, fathers, and kids have been detained for a long time at Dilley or Karnes City. There are detainees who have been here for over a year. Nearly everyone here has been detained for months and months. Hope is a fragile emotion here.
At Dilley and Karnes City, there would be pockets of detainees released after they passed their initial Credible Fear Interview (the first step to being able to continue to remain in the United States to process the rest of an individual's asylum claim). This could happen within a week or two.
But here at Berks, because of the longer-term nature of the detention and cases and overall numbers (capacity is around 100 beds) -- few people are leaving. It is so systematically oppressive here. Many of the families who are being detained here feel even more isolated being here in PA. Few of the staff speak Spanish and the food that is being served is not like the food in their home countries. I've already heard a number of horror stories of how staff have treated detainees here. And it's all happening simultaneously in isolation and right in our backyard.
I suspect the vast majority of people who live here have no idea this injustice is going on right under their noses.
She collapsed to the floor
Yesterday, I was in a legal meeting room with another legal advocate and there was big news: after 7 months of being detained, a mother and her young daughter were finally able to be released. This young mother and her daughter had gone through a number of what is called a "Request for Reconsideration." This is after the initial Credible Fear Interview (for asylum), and the individual has obtained a "negative" -- and the Immigration Judge has not vacated the case at the appeal stage.
With every Request for Reconsideration request, the window of hope for these young families to be released to pursue their asylum claim gets smaller. It is a bleak state.
But this young mother and daughter were found to possibly have been victims of trafficking (a fact that incredulously was not highlighted during the proceedings up to this point). Then, the mother and daughter were finally able to be released.
In all of my detention work over the past year, I've never witnessed a reaction like the one this woman had. After telling her of her positive credible fear finding (finally), she immediately collapsed to the floor and began crying. It lasted for maybe 5 minutes -- of nonstop emotion. As she was laying down on the floor, I tried to process how they made it through such a long detention time.
After 7 months, they were finally going to leave this hellhole detention center. And perhaps one of the most disturbing parts of this news was that her young daughter (around 5 years old), was reactionless. She sat there, dazed, not feeling any emotion. To me, in that moment, it became clear that this young girl had gone through the entire spectrum of trauma -- where a release perhaps meant a new series of obstacles to overcome. More unpredictabilities, more uncertainties.
Finding an interpreter for a rare language
One of my new clients is seeking asylum from Guatemala and speaks a rare indigenous language. In Guatemala, there are 21 Mayan languages that are spoken, and 2 non-Mayan Amerindian languages. Upon being detained at Berks, the wrong indigenous language was written on his badge.
Much to my amazement, one of my colleagues was able to arrange for an interpreter on the phone to be able to talk to this client -- and hear more about what had happened to him in Guatemala, and what his story was. But the dialect on his badge was not the right one.
For 20 minutes, we tried to communicate with my client about what language was the proper one. We finally determined that based on where he said he was from, that he spoke Akatek, a Mayan language of only an estimated 48,500 number of speakers.
I just received a call from the Newark asylum officer as I was writing this post letting me know that tomorrow, he will have his initial Credible Fear Interview for his asylum claim that I will be sitting in for. I will be sure to let you all know how it goes.
As with my past experiences working at detention centers, every time I leave the facility and step outside, it leaves me with a renewed sense of the daily things that can often be taken for granted. I was particularly reminded of this when I was told yesterday that a young 16 year old detainee at the facility hadn't seen the sun set in over an entire year.
Each day begins a new opportunity to fight for those here in detention. And my colleagues, the three solo practitioners here in Reading who are largely taking on the caseload here, are astounding. And the ultimate question that lingers for me is: how can we as a country effectively shut these detention centers down?