05:34 GMT +315 October 2019
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    ‘Alive or Dead’: Detained Immigrant Mothers in US Stage Hunger Strike

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    Detained at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania, 22 mothers began a hunger strike on Monday, in response to remarks made by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary Jeh Johnson, who suggested that immigrant families are only kept at detention centers an average of 20 days, a number the mothers observe is far too low.

    According to the mothers, the average stay is actually between 270 and 365 days. The women were first made aware of Johnson’s remarks through an email sent by Erika Almiron, a member of the Shut Down Berks Coalition and director of the immigration rights organization Juntos. Almiron was hoping to obtain a statement that her organization could make public, but the detained mothers began a hunger strike instead.  

    Almiron said, "When Johnson said (ICE) only detains people for 20 days, he said that thinking that no one would care. Our goal has always been to make people aware of the inhumane nature of detention in general, but also that children are being locked up and moms are being held indefinitely."

    In Austin, Texas, Grassroots Leadership, a social justice group calling for an end to for-profit prisons, describes family detention as "the practice of holding immigrant families, including children and babies, in prison-like detention centers with their parents. These detention centers are often operated by for-profit, private-prison companies."

    Mothers, detained with their children, whose ages range from two to 16 years old, composed an open letter to Johnson, reporting that the long imprisonment has led some of the children to express suicidal thoughts.  

    The report reads in part: "The teenagers say being here, life makes no sense, that they would like to break the window to jump out and end this nightmare, and on many occasions they ask us if we have the courage to escape. Other kids grab their IDs and tighten them around their necks and say that they are going to kill themselves if they don’t get out of here. The youngest kids (two years old) cry at night for not being able to express what they feel … We are desperate and we have decided that: we will get out alive or dead. If it is necessary to sacrifice our lives so that our children can have freedom: We will do it!"

    Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testifes before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for a hearing on threats to the United States in Washington DC, October 8, 2015
    Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testifes before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for a hearing on threats to the United States in Washington DC, October 8, 2015

    A report published by Human Rights First stated that children in Berks, already traumatized from violence and political unrest in their home countries, are further distressed by their treatment in family detention. They show symptoms of increased aggression, depression and anxiety. They also suffer insomnia and fear because of room checks that occur at 15-minute intervals each night. According to the report, detained families don’t have access to adequate health care that could help address these issues. 

    "What is happening inside of Berks is illegal," said Almiron, "I have no idea how they continue to operate. Right now, Berks does not have a license. It was revoked because the license they did have didn’t fit what they were doing. They also have prolonged detention. Women who are hunger striking have been there 360-something days, but then Jeh Johnson says it’s only 20 days." 

    She added, "There is no accountability with DHS or ICE. There are numerous ways [DHS and ICE are] not accountable, but Berks is a prime example. There is no transparency and they can to change the law whenever they like."


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    Hunger Strike, migrant detention center, Immigration, Jeh Johnson, Pennsylvania, United States
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