Guest Post by Iva Velickovic, ASAP Volunteer
Last Thursday, I practiced counting to ten with a three-year-old by typing up the numbers on my computer. We typed them out together – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 – and then made them bigger and smaller and red and blue. We did them in order and then out of order and then in order again, and it never got old. It felt like taking care of my younger cousin in so many ways but one: instead of a suburban den in Westchester, this little boy was in an interview room at the Berks Family Residential Center.
He had been there for over a year. He had learned to walk there, and learned to talk there. He had had two birthdays there, all because his mom crossed the border in Mexico and was placed into expedited removal, and then transferred to Berks. That morning, he was my client, and I, a first-year law student, was interviewing his mom as part of my work with the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP).
When I first read about the family detention centers at Karnes and Dilley – and later about the hunger strike organized by moms at Berks – I was appalled that such practices could occur on American soil. As far as I was concerned, putting mothers and their children in detention for seeking a better life was unconscionable. I knew I wanted to help get these families out of detention as soon as possible, and thankfully had the opportunity to join ASAP once I started law school.
This week, I got to experience the trauma of family detention first-hand during ASAP’s spring break trip to Berks. Berks is a long-term detention facility, which means that some of the families have been there for more than a year. The majority of the families have children younger than ten and are fleeing the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador), where they faced persecution at the hands of gangs, abusive relationships, and other hardships. Now detained at Berks, the mothers and children pass their days in a monotonous routine: cleaning at seven, breakfast at eight, lunch at noon, and dinner at five-thirty, with coloring or TV or knitting in between. They’re in bed by ten and rise again the next day to the same routine. Sometimes, they get visitors. When it snows, the kids go sledding. They never leave the Center’s grounds.
Working with a group of attorneys on the ground, the ASAP volunteers worked on both longer-term litigation to improve the living conditions at Berks and on immediate asylum concerns, such as motions to reopen or requests for reconsideration. Despite a snowstorm on our first night in Berks County, we got straight to work on Tuesday morning doing legal research and drafting memos for the attorneys with whom we were working. We spent Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at the center from before lunch until visiting hours ended at 8pm, interviewing moms and kids about their asylum claims and living conditions. By Friday, we had interviewed over a dozen families and collectively taken what felt like hundreds of pages of notes. As a first-year law student, it’s difficult to imagine a more rewarding professional development experience.
As rewarding as the professional work was, however, I was even more inspired by the resilient, loving mothers we had the privilege to work with. So many of the women detained at Berks have been through horrible persecution in their home countries and along their journeys to the United States, and although they are now detained at Berks, they continue to have hope in the future. The moms were not only willing to talk to us, but were also extremely thoughtful in their responses to our detailed questions. They were kind and calm, and, to my relief, very patient with my far-from-perfect Spanish. It was so easy to see how deeply they cared for their children, and for each other. Theirs is a community under immense stress, but it’s also one of solidarity and support.
Working with the Berks moms, the ASAP team not only developed our legal skills, but also contributed to the important fight against family detention. We’ll continue to work with the attorneys that we connected with this week on the families’ claims, fighting for the rights of the truly awe-inspiring Berks moms and kids. I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to work with them and the wonderful group of students and attorneys, and I’m hopeful that our work last week will help the Berks families secure the freedom they deserve.