After fleeing violence and now seeing their children threaten suicide because of prolonged detainment, 22 mothers in a Pennsylvania detention center are holding a hunger strike because “we will get out dead or alive.”
The "Madres Berks" began their strike on Monday, just before the one-year anniversary of the detention of some of them at the Berks County Residential Center.
“We risked our own lives and those of our children so we could arrive on safe ground,” said the women in an open letter sent to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson on Wednesday. “While here our children have considered committing suicide, made desperate from confinement. The teenagers say that being here, life makes no sense.”
Johnson had said that he would ensure that no one stays longer than 20 days, but the signees point out that those serving the least amount of time have remained 270 days.
The center, run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is notorious in the area, with one of the guards charged with raping a 19-year-old Honduran refugee and several children not receiving medical attention for days. Pennsylvania refused to renew its license last year, but while it was meant to expire in February, the center appealed.
ICE denied that anyone is on a hunger strike, responding to local WFMZ on Friday, but said they would monitor their diets should the mothers pass the 72-hour mark. The women said that guards had threatened them, telling them that if they are weak, their children would be taken away, reported local media.
Local activists had previously demonstrated in front of the center and renewed their call for messages of solidarity with the strikers
“The Obama Administration’s detention of families has had severely traumatizing effects on both children and their mothers,” said Olga Byrne of Human Rights First, which investigated conditions in the center. “Even a few days in detention can be harmful to the health of children."
Despite a ruling last month to ban detaining children in unlicensed centers, 32 women and their children still await release.
“We are desperate,” they wrote in the letter, “and we have decided that we will get out dead or alive.”