Fifteenth Birthday Wish is to be Free from Detention

By Rebecca Ma, Associate Campaigner, Amnesty International USA

For the past three years, fourteen-year-old Astrid and her father Arturo were living an ordinary life in Easton, Pennsylvania. She was in the eighth grade, studying at Easton Area Middle School, where her favorite subject is Math.

Less than a month before the much anticipated quinceañera celebration of her fifteenth birthday, life as Astrid knew it was turned upside down.

On February 20, at approximately 5:00 AM, Astrid was asleep in her room when she was awoken by six male Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) armed agents standing before her bed and yelling: “IMMIGRATION GET UP!” They ordered everyone in the house into a room and asked them for identification. The ICE agents did not show a warrant or say why they were there.

Astrid had gone to bed the night before expecting, as always, to go to school the next day. Instead she watched as her father was placed in handcuffs. They were then brought to the Berks County Residential Center with Astrid still in her pajamas. ICE hadn’t let her change her clothes.

A few things to know about Berks:

1. There are three detention centers in the US that hold families who are seeking asylum, a form of protection recognized under U.S. and international law. Berks is the oldest one.

2. Many asylum-seekers come from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, a region where Amnesty International and a myriad of other regional and international observers have documented extreme levels of violence and insecurity. Many Berks detainees have fled to the U.S. to escape specific threats against them and already experienced incomprehensible violence, and would predictably experience egregious physical harm, and even death, upon their forced return.

3. Berks is the only family detention center that forces unrelated men and women to live together in the facility. There are currently dozens of families there, all fathers with children except one mother-led family.

4. Conditions in Berks are difficult and can re-traumatize people seeking asylum, who have already endured violence and psychological harm in their flight from human rights abuses.

5. Families held at Berks can be locked up for weeks, months, even years. Last year, Amnesty campaigned for the releases of four families detained there. They had been jailed for nearly 700 days.

Astrid and Arturo arrived in the U.S. in 2015 seeking safety. They have applied for asylum. They fear going back to Guatemala because of their identity as Indigenous K’iche, where discrimination and violence are institutionalized and widespread. Astrid is particularly fearful that as a girl in a country with some of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world, she would be subject to gender-based and sexual violence as well as other serious harm.

Although Astrid and Arturo lived at the same address since arriving in the U.S. and received mail there, they had never received an updated notice of a court hearing. Until they were detained, they were unaware that they had been ordered removed from the U.S. for not appearing in immigration court. There is a stay, or suspension, of the removal orders on Astrid and Arturo while they are pursuing their asylum claim. There has been nothing presented to indicate that they are a flight risk or a danger to the community.

Astrid and Arturo have built up established ties in their community over three years. They went to Catholic Church every Sunday in Easton. She has attended Easton Area Middle School since fifth grade. She is now in eighth grade, and was selected to be in her school’s Medici Group of Emerging Leaders

Yet ICE took them from their home in the middle of the night and continues to detain them. Astrid is now the only teenage girl in the Berks facility, which is filled almost entirely of men and boys. The only other female child is five-years-old.

Tears welled up in Astrid’s eyes when she said she will turn fifteen on March 15th, and had been eagerly planning her quinceañera. Her birthday wish, now? To be freed from detention with her dad and return to middle school.