A group of mothers incarcerated with their children at an immigration detention center in Pennsylvania is entering their second week of a hunger strike in an effort to get asylum for their families and draw attention to the fact that some of them have been stuck at the facility for a year.
The mothers, many of whom are reportedly from Central America, started their hunger strike on Aug. 8 after Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said immigration authorities have been “ensuring the average length of stay at [family detention] facilities is 20 days or less.”
That's simply not true, the women argue.
“We are 22 mothers who have been imprisoned at the Berks Family Residential Center for 270 to 365 days,” the group wrote in an open letter addressed to Secretary Johnson.
“We are already traumatized from our countries of origin. We risked our own lives and those of our children so we could arrive on safe ground. While here our children have considered committing suicide, made desperate from confinement,” the women said in their letter.
Advocates representing the mothers say the 22 women are in their eighth day of the hunger strike, but immigration officials claim that nearly half the women have already discontinued their protest.
“As of Aug. 15, there are a total of 14 residents considered to be on hunger strike because they have refused to eat for more than 72 hours or have refused nine meals,” an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official told Fusion. “These residents and others are being actively monitored by ICE Health Service Corps that is on-site at the family center. Due to privacy laws, we are prohibited from discussing specific cases.”
The hunger-striking mothers, who claim they are no longer allowed to go outside to pray together due to concerns about the recent heat wave, say they all have family members who are awaiting them with open arms in the United States. ICE did not respond to Fusion’s inquiry as to why some of these women have been detained for so long, and would not comment on allegations that the women have been restricted from going out into the yard.
"ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers,” an agency spokesman said.
The extreme protest measures are a sign of increasing desperation, advocates say.
“These women are showing you what frustration looks like and, when their children are involved, what length they’ll go through to ensure their freedom,” says Erika Almiron, director of Juntos, a Latinx immigrant rights organization in South Philadelphia that has been in touch with the mothers.
“A hunger strike is a last resort for someone to get justice,” Almiron told Fusion.
ICE established the Berks Family Residential Facility in 2001. It was the first of its kind built to specifically house families in immigration proceedings.
ICE has since opened three more facilities to house the increasing number of women and children traveling to the United States to seek asylum.
The facilities have been plagued with controversies. ICE stopped admitting minors to its facility in Taylor, Texas following public outcry, while other facilities have faced complaints of medical neglect.
Below is a list of how the 22 mothers on hunger strike signed their names on the letter addressed to Secretary Jeh Johnson:
Mother with 12-year-old son with 365 days in detention.
Mother with 12 and 16-year-old daughters with 365 days in detention.
Mother with 6-year-old daughter with 365 days in detention.
Mother with 6-year-old son with 365 days in detention.
Mother with 7-year-old son with 340 days in detention.
Mother with 6-year-old son with 335 days in detention.
Mother with 15-year-old son with 305 days in detention.
Mother with 4-year-old daughter with 304 days in detention.
Mother with 9-year-old son with 300 days in detention.
Mother with 2-year-old son with 300 days in detention.
Mother with 4-year-old daughter with 277 days in detention.
Mother with 14-year-old daughter with 276 days in detention.
Mother with 7-year-old son with 276 days in detention.
Mother with 7-year-old daughter with 271 days in detention.
Mother with 2, 8 and 9-year-old children with 270 days in detention.
Mother with 3-year-old son with 270 days in detention.
Mother with 6-year-old son with 269 days in detention.
Mother with 4-year-old son with 240 days in detention.
Mother with 9-year-old daughter with 180 days in detention.
Mother with 7-year-old daughter with 120 days in detention.
Mother with 14-year-old daughter with 80 days in detention.
Mother with 7-year-old son with 60 days in detention.