WASHINGTON - A center in Berks County that houses families seeking asylum hearings in the United States is once again drawing the attention of Pennsylvania's senior senator and his colleagues on Capitol Hill.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey on Tuesday led a call for the federal government to stop the detention of four children and their mothers at the Berks County Residential Center in Bern Township.
Casey said each of the children -- ranging in age from 3 years to 16 years -- has been granted special immigrant juvenile status (SIJS) and has a pending application for legal permanent residency.
Casey, along with nine other senators and 13 members of the House of Representatives, wrote their request in a letter to John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security.
"With more pressing issues facing ICE and the need to spend our limited federal resources wisely, there are more cost-effective and humane approaches to this situation than family detention," the lawmakers wrote. "The Department of Homeland Security should be focused on apprehending and deporting violent felons and maintaining a secure border, rather than expelling young mothers and children fleeing near certain death in their home countries."
Among those who signed the letter is U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Campaigning in Reading as a Democratic candidate for president last year, Sanders called for the residential center to be closed.
The center has been the subject of numerous protests in Bern Township, as well as in Harrisburg and Philadelphia.
Below is the full text of the letter to Kelly, as provided by Casey's office:
Dear Secretary Kelly,
We write to urge the immediate release of four children and their mothers who are being detained at the Berks County Residential Center (BCRC) in Leesport, Pennsylvania. Specifically, we request the immediate release of:
- Teresa and her three-year-old son Josué
- Lorena and her four-year-old son Carolos
- Marlene and her seven-year-old son Antonio
- Maribel and her 16-year-old son Michael
Each of the above children has been granted Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) and has a pending application for legal permanent residency. Three out of the four have received their employment authorization cards (see attached). They are eligible for social security cards and await only the final step in the adjudication of their legal permanent residency. However, they remain detained with their mothers at Berks, where they have been held for nearly 600 days. Multiple requests to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release these families have been denied, with no individualized determination as to why.
These mothers and children fled unspeakable violence in their home countries in the Northern Triangle of Central America. Michael was only 14 years old when he and his mother, Maribel, fled El Salvador because they received death threats from the MS-13 for defying gang recruitment. Michael and his mother only want Michael to be able to go to church and attend school without the fear of being murdered for refusing to join the gangs. They know they will face extraordinary challenges and, very likely, violence, if they return, as Michael has two friends who were murdered for refusing to join the gangs. Seven-year-old Antonio and his mother Marlene have been in detention for over 550 days. According to her lawyers, Marlene is a survivor of sexual harassment and assault from gang leaders, and fled El Salvador with Antonio following threats to harm her and kidnap her son.
Each of these families has a story similar to Michael, Antonio, and their mothers. They fled one of the most dangerous areas in the world to seek refuge. During their time in detention, they were able to apply for, and receive, SIJS. Each of these children has received a predicate order from a family court judge that states that they “were abandoned, abused, or neglected by [their] father[s]…as such, [their] mother[s] are now the custodial parent, and responsible for all decisions regarding their court proceedings, custody and care.” It is imperative, therefore, that their mothers also be released and be issued Notices to Appear in order to continue their cases before an immigration court. Three-year-old Josué cannot be expected to make his own legal decisions or enroll himself in school. For these children, already abandoned by their fathers, their mother is the only caretaker they have known.
We also draw your attention to the remaining families detained for more than a year and a half at Berks. Although those children do not have the benefit of SIJS, they and their mothers have similarly compelling claims and fears of return. They fled brutal violence and death threats in their home countries only to be placed in detention and denied the right to fully state their asylum claims. In the interest of justice, these families, too, should be issued Notices to Appear before an
immigration court and be given a full and fair opportunity to put forth their case for asylum.
With more pressing issues facing ICE and the need to spend our limited federal resources wisely, there are more cost effective and humane approaches to this situation than family detention. The Department of Homeland Security should be focused on apprehending and deporting violent felons and maintaining a secure border, rather than expelling young mothers and children fleeing near certain death in their home countries. We urge you, to release these families to their sponsors and allow them a fair hearing of their case. We appreciate your prompt attention in this matter and look forward to a prompt response.
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