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“A black hole where the law doesn’t apply” – inside Berks, America’s oldest child migrant detention centre

The US has been detaining child migrants in places like the Berks Family Residential Facility since 2001.

The Berks Family Residential Facility, an austere red-brick building located around 75 miles northwest of the city of Philadelphia, opened in 2001 and can house around 96 children and adults. “Residential Facility” is a euphemism. Berks is America’s oldest family detention centre. It holds immigrant families, many of them fleeing violence in Central America, while their asylum claims are assessed.

Although children cannot legally be detained in America for longer than 20 days, some families have been held at Berks for almost two years. One of the longest-held detainees was one year old when he arrived at Berks; he learned to walk and talk behind bars.

In response to mounting outrage over the families separated at the border under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, the president last week announced an executive order to end the practice. Instead, President Donald Trump said he would detain families who entered the US at unofficial borders together, perhaps indefinitely.

Karen Hoffmann, a lawyer with the non-profit Aldea, who has represented a number of families in Berks, describes the Berks detention centre as “ground zero for what the Trump administration is proposing to enact across the country”.

She also describes it as “a black hole where the law doesn’t seem to apply”.

The centre, which is run by the county with funding from federal government, has been operating without a license since 2016. It remains open despite lawyers and rights groups documenting widespread abuse and medical neglect.

Court documents paint a disturbing picture of what family detention looks like, and point to an unsettling truth: liberals are rightfully outraged by Trump’s hard-line and heartless immigration policies, but he inherited an immigration system that was already deeply unjust. Some of the human rights violations that are now coming to the national attention have been going on for years.

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It has always been the policy at Berks to shine a flashlight into the bedrooms every fifteen minutes, all through the night. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who run the facility, says this is to “ensure the safety and security” of the residents. “It’s torture,” Hoffmann told me. Residents have said it disrupts their sleep and causes insomnia, fear and anxiety.

For female detainees, especially those who have experienced sexual violence, Berks can feel menacing and unsafe. Women and children are held with men unrelated to them, and there are no locks on the bedroom doors. Until 2017, girls as young as six who were detained with their fathers were required to use the men’s bathrooms and shower alongside other adult men.

In 2016 a guard was convicted of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old Honduran detainee. He was caught after a seven-year-old girl witnessed an assault. She told her psychologist she was “afraid” and drew a picture of what she had seen. The incident had triggered memories of her own sexual abuse.

Court filings point to a pattern of medical neglect, and of desperate mothers forced to plead with hostile and dismissive guards to access care for their sick children. One mother who sought medical help because her three-year-old was vomiting blood was told the girl should drink more water. The toddler continued vomiting blood for four days before she was taken to hospital.

In another instance, a five-year-old with diarrhoea went untreated for four months before being diagnosed with shigellosis, a contagious bacterial infection. One child collapsed and appeared to stop breathing but, according to two other children who witnessed the event, the nearby staff did nothing. Instead, a sixteen-year-old detainee carried the child to the medical unit, and he was rushed to hospital.

In response to these allegations, an ICE official said that Berks “is a safe, secure and humane environment for families” and disputed many of the allegations. He said they could not comment on individual cases, but said ICE provides comprehensive medical care for residents.

These abuses all pre-date Trump. President Obama expanded the use of family detention in 2014, when violence in Central America drove increasing numbers of people to seek asylum in the United States. He oversaw the opening of two more such detention centres in Texas, Dilley and Karnes. Unlike Berks, the Texas centres hold only women and children and are run by private companies.

I spoke to two lawyers who have represented families detained at Dilley, and both described incidents of ill-treatment. They say the water at Dilley is unsafe to drink, and lawyers and guards are advised to bring bottled water with them, while the detainees, including babies and nursing mothers, must all drink from the tap. Claire Thomas, the director of the asylum clinic at New York Law School, described Dilley as “horrifying”. ICE Public Affairs for Dilley Texas said it was reviewing the New Statesman’s request for comment.

ICE officials said recent inspections of ICE detention facilities showed that “contrary to the complaints filed by various immigrant rights organisations, ICE addressed satisfactorily” the challenges of caring for detained families. “Currently ICE has no plans of making any changes to its family detention centres,” ICE officials said.

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Following Trump’s executive order, ICE said it was seeking up to 15,000 beds for families caught entering the border at unofficial crossings. On Monday, however, the administration announced it was temporarily halting family detentions because of a lack of resources. The existing network of family detention centres can house just over 3,000 women and children.

Although the Trump administration has now stopped routinely splitting up families who enter the border, some 2,300 children remain separated from their parents and scattered in shelters and foster homes throughout the country. The government has no plans for reuniting them, and some families will be permanently torn apart. Lawyers are scrambling to help.

Their job is made harder by the confusion and secrecy over where children are held. Some of this secrecy is necessary to protect at-risk asylum seekers, though Hoffmann told me about a mother who called a shelter to confirm if her son was being held there and was told this information could not be released for security concerns.

It’s also made harder because, under US law, adults and children do not have the right to an appointed counsel in immigration court. Which means children can be forced to represent themselves – even if they are two years old.

Pro bono lawyers try their best to ensure that children are represented in court. They rely on referrals from schools and charities or word-of-mouth, and some organisations set up stands in court. Even so, “there are still kids who fall through the cracks and who don’t have lawyers, especially when they are outside of a major metropolitan area,” says Thomas. The number of young people needing advice far outstrips the capacity of volunteers to help. She describes the current situation as a “horrible mess”.

On Sunday, Trump tweeted that “When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. [sic]” The tweet again provoked outcry, but the unfortunate reality is this already happens on a routine basis. Even under Obama, the vast majority of deportations took place without a court hearing, as Jennifer Koh, the director of the immigration clinic at the Western State College of Law, has outlined in a paper for the Southern Law Review.

In 2015, for example, over half of deportations (165,935 in total) took place at the border, where asylum claims are reviewed and rejected by border agents with no judicial oversight. In 2014, Obama stepped up this practice.

Immigrants can also be deported in absentia if they skip their court hearing because they cannot afford to attend, or because they are scared and have received poor legal advice. Deportations in absentia made up 43 per cent of court-issued removal orders in 2015. In the absence of legal advice or knowledge of their rights, some people are persuaded by immigration officers to waive their right to a hearing, and several other categories of deportation exist that do not require an appearance before an immigration judge.

Trump’s actions on immigration are illegal and unconscionable, but the Obama administration also bears responsibility for bequeathing him a system that is already deeply unjust and easily exploited.

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After years of campaigning by activists and lawyers, the City of Philadelphia on 21 June passed a resolution calling on the governor to shut down Berks, arguing that “the imprisonment and prolonged detention of asylum-seeking children and families is inhumane and counter to international law.” Berks nevertheless remains open.

At a press conference that day for a mother-of-two who sought sanctuary in a church in New York to avoid deportation, one activist told me that he hoped that the Trump administration’s devastating policies were at least drawing public attention to the kinds of issues he’s been campaigning on for years.

The truth is, for liberals outrage is easy. Much harder, and perhaps more important, would be an honest appraisal of Obama’s immigration legacy and an acknowledgement of the abuses they have for years tolerated in exchange for limits on migration. There is a humanitarian crisis at America’s borders, and Trump isn’t the only one to blame.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.