Berks County Residential Center
Bill Uhrich/Reading Eagle

Immigrants at Berks Detention Center file federal lawsuit against AG Jeff Sessions

After almost two years in custody, the group’s lawyer tells Billy Penn they fear imminent deportation.

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Update, April 19: A judge granted a temporary restraining order, which means the women and children in this lawsuit cannot be deported while they wait for a hearing that has been scheduled for May 19.

With options dwindling and deportation considered “imminent,” four families being held for nearly two years at the infamous Berks Family Residential Center have filed a class action lawsuit against U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions, seeking release based on a special immigration status granted to their children.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in the Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania by Philly lawyer Michael Edelman and Berks County lawyers Bridget Cambria and Carol Anne Donohoe, is to some extent a last-ditch option in a saga dating back 20 months — with at least one child who’s learned to walk and talk while in custody there. It comes immediately after legal action concerning the families’ asylum requests was denied US Supreme Court review, potentially opening them up for the completion of deportation hearings.

The women and children in the lawsuit, as well as dozens of others held at the Berks County detention center, came to America in fall 2015 from Central American countries like El Salvador and Honduras, seeking asylum. They were originally held in Texas and then transported to Berks County, which has one of just three federal detention centers in the nation for undocumented women and children. The four mothers and their children in the lawsuit have asked for and been denied new asylum hearings, with a court ruling last year they didn’t even have the right to sue.

As they’ve waited for the court process — and had their deportation proceedings stayed — the children have been able to apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status. Four children, unnamed in the lawsuit, have been granted the status, which aids in the process of getting a green card. Cambria said it’s unheard of for children with SIJ status to be deported.

But a petition for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to rescind the deportation hearing against the children was denied in February. ICE, according to the lawsuit, claimed the children had been subject to “expedited removal” when they entered the country, and the application to rescind doesn’t hold up.

“We’ve hit a point where removal is imminent,” Cambria said.

In addition to granting release of the children, the lawsuit also seeks to release the mothers, who would then be allowed to stay in the country as their children continue to go through the legal process.

Meanwhile, the detention center remains controversial. A federal judge in 2015 in California ruled children couldn’t be held in detention centers for more than 20 days. Governor Tom Wolf has said he wants it to be closed, and the center has had licensing issues. The New York Times did a story on the center when several women being held underwent a hunger strike last fall.

According to the lawsuit, one of the children, who is 3 years old, came to America from Honduras with his mother, Wendy Amparo Osorio-Martinez, fleeing gang violence and sexual violence. Osorio-Martinez’s son has spent half his life in the detention center and learned to walk and talk there.

The other children and mothers in the lawsuit have similar stories.

“You wouldn’t send them back to a country where they’ve dealt with this harm,” Cambria said. “In these cases, these four children all have approved status. They’re just simply waiting for their green cards. And Immigration has said they want to deport them.”

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