Victoria, a Honduran woman, and her then 6-year-old daughter had been detained in Texas for as long as ICE could legally keep them. So late at night in the spring of 2016, they were transferred to the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, the only long-term family detention center in the U.S.
By moving them to Berks, ICE would be able to hold them indefinitely.
Victoria, who asked VICE News not to use her real name, didn’t know where she was being taken or why. But she immediately realized what it meant to be at Berks. “I saw all these mothers with children,” she told VICE News. “And they said some had been there a year and a half. Others two years. ‘My God,’ I said, ‘I’m never getting out.’”
A prison-like compound that can hold up to 48 families at a time, Berks is the sole family detention center in the U.S. with a childcare license. That’s what allows the facility to hold families for long periods of time. A 1997 court settlement known as the “Flores Agreement” prevents children from being detained for more than 20 days without one of these licenses.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has repeatedly tried and failed to license other facilities, and now, the Trump administration says a shortage of licensed facilities is preventing officials from enforcing immigration law without separating or releasing families. This week, the administration gave official notice that it plans to defy Flores and create a new method for licensing detention centers.
If that proposal goes into effect, Berks could become the model for family detention across the country.
Residents at Berks go through a regular routine day-after-day — wake up, go to school, eat lunch. Most of their time is spent sitting inside small sterile rooms, though they occasionally get to go outside for some fresh air. The parents and their children are almost never apart, and they’re always under the supervision of the guards.
But not all of the facility’s procedures are so mundane. “The nights were the worst,” Victoria told VICE News. Every 15 minutes throughout the night, the guards check on each room and shine a flashlight on the residents’ faces. “I prayed for morning to come, because what’s the point of being in bed and not sleeping?”
Detention has been shown to have a detrimental impact on a child’s health. And that’s a reality Victoria saw firsthand: “Before coming [to Berks], my daughter was very happy, very talkative. Once we arrived at the center, she changed. She was sad, bored, tired.”
Some of the other children exhibited even more worrisome behavior. “There was a kid who told his mom in the middle of the night that he couldn’t sleep and that he wanted to smash the glass, break the window, and jump,” Victoria said. “Imagine those small creatures thinking that? I would've been terrified if my daughter said, ‘Mommy, I want to jump out the window.’”
ICE told VICE News in a statement that it “takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in [its] care” and pointed to a 2017 Inspector General Report that found its facilities “clean, well-organized, and efficiently run.”
“Comprehensive medical care is provided to all individuals in ICE custody. Staffing includes registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, licensed mental health providers, mid-level providers that include a physician’s assistant and nurse practitioner, a physician, dental care, and access to 24-hour emergency care,” a spokesperson said.
But the agency said it couldn’t respond to Victoria’s story without knowing her real identity.
After nearly eight months, Victoria went before an immigration judge and was released from the center. She and her daughter received a visa and are now living legally in the U.S. But their time at Berks left its mark: “The children do suffer, and it stays in their heads. My daughter says, ‘Remember when we were there, Mommy? When we were locked up and we didn't eat, Mommy?’ She remembers everything. Everything.”
This segment originally aired Sept. 6, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.