Twenty-two mothers detained inside Pennsylvania’s Berks County Residential Center, one of two family detention centers in the country, have resumed their hunger strike with plans to continue until they are released from detention.
The initial hunger strike began August 8 in response to recent comments from Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson that the average length of stay in family detention is 20 days. The 22 asylum seekers who launched the hunger strike said their length of stay had been between 270 and 365 days.
After 15 days without food, the women ended the strike August 23 because of intimidation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. The women were told that they would be transferred to Texas’ Karnes County Residential Center, or that they would have their children taken away from them if they became “too weak” as a result of not eating.
In a statement provided to Juntos, a Philadelphia-based immigrant rights organization that has been in touch with the women detained inside Berks, the hunger strikers said they took seven days off of their strike to give the federal government the opportunity to “take action on our matter and to commemorate the one-year anniversary of four mothers and their children in [Berks] prison.”
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They decided to resume their strike when they received no response.
“During this strike we will not receive any food, but we will keep hydrated to preserve enough energy and health to keep fighting for our freedom and care for our children. We also want to make clear that our children are not part of this strike,” the statement read. “We continue trusting God, because he has the final say on our entire situation. Our faith keeps us firm in this tireless struggle for our freedom, and to uncover all the injustices that are occurring in this place.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia ruled on Monday that 28 women detained inside of Berks came to the United States as asylum seekers “surreptitiously,” so they are not entitled to a review of their asylum cases and should be deported. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has appealed the decision.
Some of the women hunger striking are included in the federal case, though the exact number is unknown. While the ACLU appeal is pending, the 28 women affected by Monday’s decision have stays of deportation, meaning they cannot be deported.
“Those of us who are part of the federal case have no fear of deportation because our stay of deportation remains valid through our appeal process,” the women’s statement read. “This country gives the opportunity for people to fight for their rights until the end, without fear that we will be deported to countries where the lives of our children are in danger. But not all of our compañeras in the strike have this protection, even though they face the same injustices and intimidations.”
Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos and a member of the Shut Down Berks coalition, told Rewire that the striking women weren’t fully aware of the asylum process and want the chance to have their cases reopened.
A “credible fear” interview takes place at least 48 hours after an asylum seeker arrives at a detention center, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). During the interview, an asylum officer must determine whether the asylum seeker has legitimate reason to fear persecution or torture in their country of origin.
USCIS reports that after an asylum seeker is taken into ICE custody, they are given an orientation on the “credible fear” process and a list of pro bono legal service providers. That was not the experience of many asylum seekers in detention.
“So many credible fear interviews happen without an attorney,” Almiron said. “There are a lot of people who come here and because of a language barrier or ICE not telling them their rights, they aren’t clear on whether they should have an attorney and during their credible fear interview, they don’t really understand what is happening. A lot of people don’t pass their interviews because they didn’t know the process.”
The women in Berks would like to redo their “credible fear” interviews, this time with their attorneys present.
“They’ve been denied this. Basically, the court is saying: ‘We don’t believe you really fear going back to your country,’ even though these women face serious danger if they’re deported,” Almiron told Rewire.
ICE and Berks did not respond to previous requests for comment from Rewire.
The women intend to continue with their hunger strike, even if they are faced with the same threats of having their children taken from them. Almiron said ICE is being very strategic in “using their children against them,” but that something has shifted for the strikers.
“These women in particular have risked everything for their children, so the idea of having their children taken away is a very scary thought–and this is very intentional, this threat by ICE is strategic,” Almiron said. “But the women are stronger at this point. They are much more political, and they are empowered.”