WASHINGTON, D.C.– Activists armed with teddy bears took to the White House on Monday to call attention to the prolonged detention of immigrant children and parents at a family detention center in Pennsylvania.
As curious tourists walked nearby and asked questions, Amnesty International organizers set up several over-sized teddy bears in front of height charts and silhouettes of children, handing out fact sheets about “#TheBerkKids” in reference to the 60 or so children and parents detained at the Berks County Residential Center. Earlier in the day, organizers had delivered some 33,000 petitions to Ivanka Trump — the daughter and adviser to the president — urging her to visit families held at Berks and see what they experience as they seek refuge in the country, an Amnesty International press release indicated.
“Today is [Ivanka Trump’s] birthday so we’re using this as a symbolic delivery of those petitions,” Denise Bell, Senior Campaigner for Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty International USA, told ThinkProgress. While Bell fielded questions from another reporter, other organizers wrangled height charts and teddy bears flopping in the strong autumnal wind. “We also sent her a new letter re-inviting her to visit and urging her, as an advocate of mothers and children, to advocate an end to the practice of detaining mothers and children.”
As a self-proclaimed advocate for women, Ivanka Trump often posts curated photos of herself as a working mother alongside her children who appear overjoyed by her presence. Amnesty International organizers wanted to make the point that unlike her children, immigrant children detained at Berks undergo serious trauma and do not have any freedom.
“Berks is the only place in the country where a child who’s not been convicted of a serious crime can be detained for more than 700 days,” Bell pointed out in reference to four immigrant families that the group helped to release over the summer but not before they were held for nearly 700 days at Berks.
In that case, four sets of Central American families fled to the United States because they had experienced threats, intimidation, and gang recruitment. When they were detained at the southern U.S. border, the U.S. government transferred them to Berks, one of three operational family detention centers in the country, while they wait for their court proceedings. At the height of a surge of Central American immigrants to avoid increasingly dangerous conditions in their home countries, an increase that began in 2011, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehended 16,357 family units and 10,631 just in June 2014.
Although the Obama administration aimed to detain immigrant children less than 21 days because of a 1997 class action lawsuit at two other family detention facilities in Texas, Bell said that same standard hasn’t been applied to Berks. Under the same administration, government lawyers argued that the Flores settlement agreement, which governs the standards for detention and release of immigrant children, shouldn’t apply to children who are accompanied by parents or legal guardians, as Human Rights First explained. The Berks facility is currently operating without a childcare license at the moment, required at all Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities where children are held longer than 21 days.
Conditions in Berks are so bad that two dozen immigrant mother detainees held two successive hunger strikes last September. When detainees of all ages complained of illness, they were told to “drink water.”
Studies have shown that detainees suffer both physical and mental ailments from being detained for so long. In a letter to then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote that detention is “associated with poorer health outcomes, higher rates of psychological distress, and suicidality.”