“Señor Presidente, please set aside your vacation for ten minutes and look at how we’re suffering locked up in here!” This is one mother’s desperate plea, in Spanish; she is one of 22 detained Central American mothers on a hunger strike at Berks County Residential Center in rural Pennsylvania. Today marks the 10th day of the mothers’ strike and they say they will continue until they get some clarity on their asylum petitions. The mothers, who only drink water, have lost an average of 10 pounds since they began.
Activists from “Make the Road Pennsylvania” have been protesting in solidarity with the women outside the center in Pennsylvania for the last few months, but now that the mothers are on a hunger strike they have taken the protest on the road. On Monday, a handful of activists made their way to Martha’s Vineyard, where President Obama is vacationing with his family, to demand the President intervene.
On average, these women have spent some 300 days in detention with their children, who range in age from two to 16 years old. These mothers say some of the older children have begun to exhibit suicidal tendencies, and this they say, is the driving force behind the hunger strike.
“Our children are really paying the price psychologically and emotionally by remaining locked up in here,” said Margarita in Spanish via telephone from detention recently. Margarita is just 22 years old, the mother of a six year old. “We don’t really care about ourselves anymore; what we want is for our children to have a fighting chance and that will happen outside of these walls.”
A week ago the women detailed their plight, and that of their children, in a bilingual letter addressed to the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson.
“On many occasions our children have thought about SUICIDE because of the confinement and desperation that is caused by being here. The teenagers say BEING HERE, LIFE MAKES NO SENSE, THAT THEY WOULD LIKE TO BREAK THE WINDOW TO JUMP OUT AND END THIS NIGHTMARE,” the mothers write in the letter.
The 22 mothers go on to write,
“We are desperate and we have decided that: WE WILL GET OUT ALIVE OR DEAD. If it is necessary to sacrifice our lives so that our children can have freedom: WE WILL DO IT!”
The women are adamant they will continue their hunger strike until they are offered some kind of relief for their children. The mothers, in their letter take specific aim at Secretary Johnson, because in a recent media breakfast, Johnson said the average detention of immigrant families is 20 days or less.
One percent of immigration detainees are held for as long as these mothers, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security. Most, it would seem, are kept twenty days or less, but this has not been the case with these women, who were part of the wave of some 150,000 Central American mothers and their children who crossed into the United State illegally, seeking asylum.
In response to a request for comment from Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the hunger strike and the families’ detention, the agency released the following statement, which reads in part: "U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) takes very seriously the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care and we continue to monitor the situation. The Berks County Residential Center is staffed with medical and mental health care providers who monitor, diagnose and treat residents at the facility.”
SISTERHOOD IN DETENTION
These women did not know one another in their native Central American countries, but have forged an indomitable bond during their time in detention. The mothers, all escaping the drug and gang violence that has taken a choking grip on the so-called Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, range in age from their early twenties to their forties.
They share an all too common story; fear for their lives and the lives of their children that drove them out of their country and to the United States in search of a better life here. And now in detention in this country for nearly a year, the women have banded together; collectively they make decisions from when and how to file a grievance with the detention center to the decision to begin a hunger strike.
At 22 years old, many American young adults are graduating college and pondering a career path, but for many Central Americans their biggest decision revolves around staying in their home country hoping to steer clear of violence or embarking on the treacherous journey north in hopes of a fresh start free of fear and rampant violence.
Margarita, who asked her name be changed for fear of retaliation is, at age 22, the young mother of a six-year old, and like many of the mothers she has forged a bond with in detention, she dreams of a bright future for him.
Last year, Margarita made the fateful decision to leave everything behind in her native El Salvador and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally with her son. Upon arrival she says she presented herself to immigration officials at the border and requested asylum. But instead she and her son were put into a detention facility, first in Texas and shortly thereafter transferred to the family detention center in Berks County, Pennsylvania. She and her son have been detained for more than 300 days.
Another mother, Jessica, who also asked for her name be changed out of fear of retaliation, has a teenage son, who she says has expressed suicidal thoughts. Jessica tells us she left El Salvador with her son because the violent gang organization Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13, was actively recruiting him and threatened his life if he didn’t join. Just like Margarita, she came in hopes of a better life and reuniting with her child’s father, who has lived in the United States for nearly twelve years. The child’s grandmother, who also lives in the United States, told us tearfully that it breaks her heart to see her grandson detained and that he tells her he wants to be freed.
All the women and their children have relatives who are willing and able to welcome them in their homes and provide for them. This is one of the reasons why their attorney, Bridget Cambria, told us ICE should release the children along with their mothers while their cases are evaluated. Cambria insists it is in the children’s best interest to be freed from detention at Berks and not just to ensure they thrive but also because the center’s right to operate is under legal review.
FUTURE OF BERKS UNDER SCRUTINY
Berks County is a bucolic nod to the rural America of yesteryear; rolling green hills and mom-and-pop shops. The center sits just outside of Reading a blue-collar town where decades of economic stagnation has taken a toll; it is here that Berks County Residential Center, the smallest of three immigration detention centers for families operates. There are two others in South Texas. From the outside the center appears to be an inviting school campus but the mothers and their attorney say the prolonged detention has taken an emotional and physical toll, especially on the children.
Currently, the Berks County Residential Center’s license to operate as a family detention center is under review by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. Earlier this year, the department revoked the center’s license citing that housing adults and minors in the same facility is against Pennsylvania state law. The center has filed an appeal. A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services tells us that the center can continue to operate pending a ruling on the appeal.
Rebeka Smyth is a correspondent, Leonor Ayala is the Director of the Northeast and Midwest region, and Edgar Zúñiga Jr, a producer, all based in Noticias Telemundo's New York bureau for the network's national-evening newscast, "Noticiero Telemundo." Telemundo is a division of NBCUniversal.