When we first heard reports about the mistreatment of detained migrant families at the Berks County Family Center in rural Pennsylvania, we wanted to see it for ourselves. There were allegations of verbal abuse from guards and medical neglect, and an ongoing criminal prosecution against one ex-employee for allegedly sexually assaulting a 19-year-old resident.
But ICE wouldn’t allow our cameras inside the facility, arguing that it would violate the detainees’ privacy. The mothers on the other side of the wall, however, were desperate to be heard.
ICE gave us video footage from inside the center that they had filmed themselves, footage the mothers told us misrepresents the conditions and was filmed without their consent. Three mothers called us from inside while on strike, refusing to continue custodial work that pays just $1 a day. We also spoke with two detainees who had recently been released. Both described shouting guards, inedible food and byzantine rules.
The Berks County Family Center was designed to detain families as they wait for their asylum cases to be heard. But those detentions, which until June 2014 were only short-term, are now stretching more than a year. While there is nothing new about detaining adult asylum seekers, immigration advocates question the legality of detaining their children alongside them.
A federal judge is currently weighing whether the U.S. government’s policy on family migrant detention is illegal. In the meantime, we set out to Berks County to see the consequences of that policy ourselves.