In an exclusive interview, we speak with a woman held for nine months with her four-year-old daughter at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania as they seek asylum from El Salvador. She describes how she won their release only after she bowed to pressure to break her hunger strike and eat an apple. She agreed to do an interview if we did not show her face or use her real name. "Maria" had just arrived in Arlington, Texas. She must now wear an electronic monitor around her ankle. Democracy Now! correspondent Renée Feltz filed this report.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: How long is too long for a child to be held in detention? We turn now to look at an ongoing protest by mothers and their children who have been held indefinitely in a family detention center—in some cases for more than a year. Last week, more than 20 immigrant women at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania resumed their hunger strike to call for their release. This followed a suspension of their protest when officials said they would take away their children if they grew weak.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has detained the families at Berks since they arrived in the United States seeking asylum from violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Most have been denied asylum and are being held while they appeal their cases. Their protest has raised questions about whether ICE is flouting a federal judge’s mandate that puts a 20-day limit on the time that children can be detained.
AMY GOODMAN: In a few minutes, we’ll be joined by a physician who just spent a week at Berks observing the families who have been held there indefinitely. But first we turn to an exclusive interview taped just yesterday, taped on Tuesday, with a woman who was participating in the hunger strike until she was released from Berks after nine months in detention. She and her daughter are in a similar legal position as the other families at Berks. But as it turns out, all she had to do to win her freedom was end her hunger strike and eat an apple. Democracy Now! correspondent Renée Feltz files this report.
RENÉE FELTZ: I got word that a mother held at Berks County Residential Center with her four-year-old daughter had been released and had an incredible story to tell. I reached her, and she agreed to do an interview if we didn’t show her face or use her real name. Maria had just arrived in Arlington, Texas, after a three-day cross-country bus ride, where she reunited with her husband and another relative, who she’ll now live with. So I went there to meet her. I began by asking her how it felt to be free.
MARIA: [translated] I am very happy. I’m ecstatic, because I am here with my family, and my daughter is here with her dad, whom she wanted to be with. I’m just very, very happy.
RENÉE FELTZ: Maria and her daughter’s time in detention began last November, when she came to the United States from El Salvador to seek asylum. They were placed in a South Texas residential center, a family detention center in Dilley, Texas, run by Corrections Corporation of America. Within a month, her request for asylum was denied. While she appealed the decision, they were transferred to the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania, where she and other families pleaded with ICE officials to be released.
MARIA: [translated] And he would ask us, how are we doing here? And we said, "We’re locked up. We don’t have anything to do. We want to get out." And all he would say is—he would just shrug his shoulders and look at us and almost mockingly laugh at our faces. It was just demeaning.
RENÉE FELTZ: The Berks residential center is a low-security detention center housed in a former hospital and nursing home. But Maria described it as more like a jail.
MARIA: [translated] I want to tell you that, yes, I did not feel well at all. I was—it was terrible. I could not sleep at all. Every night when you would go to sleep, every five minutes, every 10 minutes, the door would open. Someone would come in and flash the light at you, at your face.
And then my daughter, she would, of course, sleep on the other bed, but because she would get up in the middle of the night—she was afraid, and she would get up in the middle of the night and say, "Mommy, mommy, I’m scared." And she would slip into bed with me. And they would come, the officers would come, in the middle of the night and shine their light at me. And they would look at me and say, "She’s not supposed to be here. Get her off, and get her into her own bed." And they would make her go into the bed. And she would be afraid.
And so, because my daughter, maybe she didn’t sleep enough at night—I don’t know—but she was always angry. She was always very aggressive. She was terrible, because she just wasn’t—she wasn’t sleeping. And neither was I. And I felt terrible because of everything.
And there were children who had their ID hanging on their neck, and sometimes they would want—they would take it, and they would strangle themselves with it, because they couldn’t stand being there, so they would try to strangle themselves with the ID.
RENÉE FELTZ: Maria and her daughter were detained for nine months. She told me the length of time was unbearable.
MARIA: [translated] The first month, I felt fine. I felt good. In the same room where I was, I found my friend from Dilley, so she was in the same room I was, and that was nice. But they gave her her freedom in two months’ time, so she left. So I stayed very sad, and I didn’t—I wasn’t happy anymore, after she left.
And so, they kept putting people in, and then they kept taking them out, and they kept putting people in, and they kept taking them out. And I kept staying there, and I kept staying there. And I didn’t know what was going on. We went to say our goodbyes to them, and we all hugged and kissed. And my daughter went to kiss her little friend, their son. And they were—and she couldn’t even cry, because she didn’t know what to do. And I just felt—I just—I didn’t know what to do. I just felt horrible. But my daughter kept asking me, and she would ask and say, "Mom, why are they leaving, and not us?" And I would tell her, "Please, baby, have patience. We’ll be next. We’ll be next."
RENÉE FELTZ: In August, Maria says, she and about 20 mothers reached a breaking point. They decided to go on a hunger strike to call for their release from the Berks detention center while their cases were pending. For one week, they refused to eat any meals. Then, Maria says, they were granted a meeting to discuss their demands with the director of the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, Thomas Decker. No lawyers were present during the meeting. Maria described what happened next.
MARIA: [translated] Look, they would put big servings of fruit—of watermelon, of grapes, of all different types of fruit—around where we were to entice us to eat. I met with Mr. Thomas, and I sat there with him, and he said, "I don’t want to see anyone who is not eating. I want you to eat something. If I bring an apple, will you eat it? I’m going to bring an apple, so I want you to eat it." And so he sent out for an apple. So, then, they brought the apple in, and he saw that I was eating it. I ate the apple in front of him. He looked at me. And he only made two questions for me. I told him that I couldn’t stand the food, that if I ate that food, the only thing that would happen, I would go straight to the bathroom. And I couldn’t take it anymore, so I could not eat any of that food. And then I told him also that I wanted my freedom and that that’s the other reason I was doing this, because I wanted my freedom, and so I would stop—I stopped eating because of that. And so, he told me that this was not going to do any good if I stopped eating, that I was not going to get freedom that way. So then I kept eating. I kept eating, just as he asked.
But that following week, I did not get any result. I did not get any answer from him. So then I went, and I decided to write some things to Mr. Thomas. And so I wrote some things. Immigration picked it up. They sent it to him. And then, that’s when he followed through. He said he looked at what I wrote to him then, and he said—he replied to me that in one or two days he would send me back a reply. A Wednesday arrived, and my immigration official called me in, and he asked me if I was still on a hunger strike. And then he asked me if I had the address for here, and I told him that I did. And he said, was I going to come here? And I said I would. And he asked me, did I have people here? And I said, yes, I did. And then he told me that he would take that to his boss. And so, then, the following day, they called me, and that day they gave me my freedom. But he said that I still would go out—even though I had my freedom, I would still go out with deportation orders.
RENÉE FELTZ: Now living in Arlington, Maria still faces deportation. She’ll be required to check in weekly with immigration officials. And like almost all women released from detention at Berks, she has to wear an electric monitor bracelet on her ankle. While Maria says she’s grateful to be out of detention and living with her family, she has a message for President Obama about the families still inside.
MARIA: [translated] I want to tell him to, please, feel it in your heart, to, please, listen to us and to help us. There are many children in these detention centers. There are many children desperate to get out. They need their liberty. We need our liberty, our freedom. Just like my daughter now feels happiness, I want all these children to feel that same happiness. That’s what I ask for.
AMY GOODMAN: Thanks to Democracy Now! correspondent Renée Feltz for that exclusive interview with—well, she is calling herself Maria, and now in Arlington, Texas, with a security bracelet, a monitoring bracelet, around her ankle. Special thanks to Ana Fores Tamayo for interpreting. This is Democracy Now! Juan?